Category Archives: Energy

Solar Farms and Rural Blight

Non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam is committed to solar energy in Virginia. So is the General Assembly. So are Virginia environmentalists, investor-owned utilities and entrepreneurial solar developers. Now all we have to do is convince the people of rural Virginia that installing massive arrays of solar panels in their neighborhoods poses no threat to their quality of life.

I’ve documented numerous instances of resistance to solar projects around the state on this blog. Here are a couple more.

Campbell County. The Campbell County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with an ordinance to regulate solar farms, three of which have been proposed for the Central Virginia county, reports the News & Advance. Much of the discussion at a hearing yesterday focused on the noticeable hum emitted by solar inverters, which convert the electricity from solar panels into a form that can enter the electric grid. One supervisor argued for a 200- to 300-foot setback for the devices, which can generate noise at a level comparable to an air conditioner or dishwasher. Other supervisors rejected the idea, but the ordinance does require solar projects to conduct traffic studies and decommissioning studies.

More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia.(Image credit: Hamell.net.)

Culpeper County. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a public hearing yesterday on a proposed 1,900-acre solar farm in Culpeper County. Concerns included impacts to view sheds in the area, screening, construction noise, setbacks and property values, reports the Free Lance-Star.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find noise concerns laughable. If inverters required 200-foot setbacks to mitigate an air conditioner-level hum, so would every new house constructed in Campbell County! Is construction work on solar panels louder and more objectionable than construction work on convenience stores, housing subdivisions and manufacturing plants? As for traffic impact, c’mon, a solar farm might generate two or three trips on a typical day. Solar farms are about as low-impact an activity as it’s possible to get. Even cemeteries see more action! 

Even more non-solar visual blight.

People may have a point about the aesthetic impact of solar farms upon bucolic rural views. But, dude, why just pick on solar farms? I’ve seen plenty of run-down shacks, gas stations, and industrial structures barns in rural Virginia that no one gets exercised about. Why not clean them up, too?

Solar’s time has arrived. Virginia was prudent to not mandate solar power when the technology was more primitive and the electric output far more expensive than it is today. But costs have plummeted, and a big chunk of solar in the electric-generating mix makes economic sense. Plus, solar is clean. Even if you don’t lay awake at night worrying about global warming — which I certainly don’t — that’s a major bonus. Get with the program, people! Solar farms bring tax and royalty revenue into your community. Find something else to worry about!

The “Energy Cloud” — Buzzword or the Future?

To get an idea of how people outside of Virginia are thinking about energy policy, I listened two days ago to a webinar produced by Navigant Consulting on the emerging “energy cloud.”

The energy cloud, says Navigant, will come from applying digital technologies to the electric grid, shifting from a one-way flow of electrons on power lines to a multi-directional flow and moving from large, central power stations toward Distributed Energy Resources (DER). “A cleaner, intelligent, increasingly mobile, and more distributed grid is just around the corner.”

After decades of relative stability, Navigant opines, the U.S. is entering a period of great change. “New value will be created and captured across highly dynamic and disruptive Energy Cloud platforms. … Energy incumbents, especially utilities, have less than 5 years to reorient their products and business models around fast emerging technology ecosystems like iDER, Smart Cities, and IoE (Internet of Everything) or risk becoming a fringe player in the emerging energy economy.”

Now, I recognize that Navigant charges exorbitant fees for business-intelligence services by persuading people that its consultants and analysts perceive the onrushing future with greater clarity than anyone else. The firm touts the Next Big Thing and makes the case that disaster will befall anyone who gets left behind. That said, Navigant talks to a lot of people, including those with potentially disruptive technologies and business models, not just established players wedded to the status quo. It would be unwise to dismiss its prognostications out of hand.

Distributed energy will be as disruptive to the electric power industry as solar and wind power, Navigant says. For example: Electric-powered vehicles, which operate on batteries and plug into the grid, will be huge. Over the next 10 years, distributed energy resources — which includes fleets of electric vehicles that can feed into and draw down from the grid at will — will grow at eight times the pace of central-station generation, the firm predicts.

Also, says Jan Vrins, managing director-energy for Navigant, the industry is moving away from one-size-fits-all electric power to highly personalized products and services. “Energy providers are providing what customers are looking for. As energy and electric power becomes more important to our society,” he says, “there’s a significant opportunity to go after new revenue streams around transportation, around industrial and commercial customers.”

Mary Powell

The Un-utility. One of the presenters was Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Energy, a Vermont utility. “I don’t view DER as a threat,” she says. “We see opportunities to create deeper, more substantial relationships with our customers. We have a customer-obsessed culture. … Three or four years ago, we began to focus on how do we accelerate the consumer-led revolution to distributed resources.”

Vermont customers are politically progressive, and they want a different energy future. A decade ago the emphasis was on solar energy and putting solar on rooftops. The conversation has evolved since to smart grids, demand-management, energy efficiency, energy storage, and flattening the peak in energy demand. “We’re not just attacking the peak, we’re crushing it,” Powell says.

Reinventing itself as the “un-utility,” Green Mountain Power has transformed its corporate culture. Instead of thinking about how to grow demand for electricity, the team has asked, “What happens if we lost 40% of our traditional revenue over 10 years? How do we create a new value stream?” The approach has been to experiment a lot. “Try something in a nimble, gritty, low cost way,” says Powell. “Don’t take massive bets. Make lots of small bets, and lean into the ones that offer great value for customers.”

How’s that all working out for Vermonters? The webinar didn’t get into that. Vermont’s electric rates are about 50% higher than Virginia’s. But then, electric bills are lower. Vermonters don’t need air conditioning, and they typically use gas or oil to heat. Can lessons learned in Vermont apply to Virginia? That would make an interesting discussion.

Paula Gold-Williams

Utility-scale solutions in an era of DER. CPS Energy, which supplies electricity to the San Antonio, Texas, area, serves a very different customer base. Energy customers aren’t as politically driven in Texas as in Vermont, but they are changing, and CPS Energy is changing with them, says CEO Paula Gold-Williams.

Some customers want the kind of personalized electricity described in the Navigant playbook. But, Gold-Williams says, “I have customers on the other end of the spectrum who say, ‘I don’t even want to think about it. I don’t want to think about technology. You’re the energy expert, you do what you think is right.'” Continue reading

Visual Impacts and Transmission Lines

Will the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line look like this….

Last week the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a last-ditch appeal by the National Parks Conservation Association and allied groups to block  construction of the controversial high-voltage transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. Dominion Energy Virginia had embarked upon preliminary construction in February after winning a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, and the ruling clears the utility to complete the project by the summer of 2019.

Apparently, a favorable ruling was not a foregone conclusion. At the preliminary injunction phase, wrote Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the plaintiffs made “a powerful argument on the merits” that the Corps had issued the permit improperly. However, he added, “now that the Court has dug into the administrative record and relevant case law it is evident that the Corps made a “fully informed and well-considered decision.”

Lamberth made clear that he was not saying that the Corps made the correct decision; rather, it met all relevant standards and criteria for issuing the permit. 

… or like this?

For those interested in the controversy, the guts of the ruling shed new light into aspects of the seemingly interminable Corps decision-making process.

Perhaps the most contentious issue was the visual impact of the 500 kV Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line upon a relatively pristine stretch of the James River associated with Jamestown and the English settlement of Virginia. Early in the controversy Dominion prepared visualizations showing the transmission-line towers as barely visible on the horizon when viewed from Jamestown Island. Power line foes disputed the accuracy of the renderings.

The Corps studied the visual impact in detail, creating a 400-page visual effects assessment, entitled the Cultural Resources Effects Assessment (CREA). Employing various vantage points and line-of-sight analyses, expert consultant Truescape created photo simulations demonstrating how the river crossing would appear to the human eye.

After the Corps made the document public, opposition groups criticized the Truescape methodology, noting that the analysis failed to analyze how the project would impact a visitor traveling on the river in close proximity to where the power line would cross the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Trail. “In other words,” summarized Lamberth, “while the CREA’s visual analysis captured what the electrical line would look like from historical vantage points on land, it would not capture the impact to a visitor traveling by boat on the river. He continued:

In response, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated in June 2016 to include nearly 80 pages of additional reference photographs and visual simulations depicting views from the river. … Moreover, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated again in August 2016 to include additional simulations based on a second round of photographs taken from the river.

Moreover, from a process perspective, the Corps held discussions with [the National Park Service] regarding its its methodological concerns and received an NPS guidance document on how to evaluate visual impact assessments. … The Corps forwarded the document to Dominion, asking them to address whether the methods used were comparable and what the plan would be going forward. … Dominion demonstrated that the methodology used followed NPS guidance and provide[d] reliable simulations of how the Project would look. Upon considering the methodological concerns raised by NPS and reviewing Dominion’s updated analysis, the Corps concluded:

“Dominion’s simulations provided enough accuracy to sufficiently analyze effects to both historic properties and a visitor’s experience. … While there are various methods for predicting visual impact it is not likely that employing further methods will result in substantively different views or information.”

In the ruling Lamberth also alluded to the involvement of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the controversy.

NPS sent a detailed letter in January 2017, in which it pointed to “fundamental flaws” with the decision-making process that “remain unresolved.” NPS specifically noted the flawed visual analysis. Although the Corps was not required to accept NPS’s critique, Lamberth wrote, senior staff met with Interior Department officials to discuss the comments.

In March 2017, the new Secretary of the Interior Zinkie (sic), who ultimately presides over NPS, stated that the information that had been provided by the Corps reflected “thoughtful and thorough consideration of the issues raised by my predecessor. …”

Secretary Zinkie’s letter effectively withdrew the Department of Interior’s previous stance that an [Environmental Impact Statement] was required. “As we all know, elections have consequences” and the Interior Department’s shift in position demonstrates to the Court that there is no longer active disagreement between the Interior Department and the Corps.”

As it happened, Lamberth agreed with the Corps that the visual impact would not be significant. Boaters traveling the James, he wrote, already are exposed to views of de-commissioned Navy ships comprising the Ghost Fleet, the water tower at Fort Eustis, the Surry nuclear power station, several large, modern houses on the shoreline, barges and other commercial vessels, and recreational boaters and water skiers from Kingsmill Resort.

“The Corps did enough,” concluded Lamberth. “It engaged in reasoned analysis, consulted experts, responded to criticisms of both its methodologies and conclusions, took a hard look at the potential impacts, and concluded that the impact of the Project would be ‘moderate at most.'”

Virginia’s Date with RGGI

RGGI states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont

There’s a good chance that Virginia will participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to cut utility CO2 emissions. The impact of the cap-and-trade system would be mostly symbolic.

Barring litigation, Virginia could start participating later this year in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced Reggie), a cap-and-trade program designed to reduce CO2 emissions of electric utilities and large industrial customers by 30% over a 10-year period. All it will take is for the State Air Pollution Control Board to approve regulations, now undergoing public comment, that have been drafted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Cap-and-trade programs have proven highly cost effective at bringing down emissions in sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and proponents say that a similar approach could work just as well for carbon-dioxide, widely held to be the primary driver of global warming. Cap-and-trade, they say, avoids the inefficiencies of bureaucratic command-and-control regulations. Instead, the auction arrangement steers power output to entities that can reduce CO2 emissions the most cost effectively. Not only will RGGI cut emissions, they contend, it will flatten electric rate increases, lower electric bills, and stimulate economic growth.

There’s just one problem. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, doesn’t believe it. In fact, in its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, the utility fired a broadside against the regulatory initiative. The company maintains the following:

  • The program could impose $530 million in additional costs on Virginia customers between 2020 and 2030.
  • In effect, Virginia will subsidize other RGGI states through lower compliance costs to the tune of $876 million over the decade.
  • Virginia’s linkage to RGGI will not reduce CO2 emissions. To the contrary, the auctions will increase CO2 output by 5.7% more than it would have been otherwise.

PJM service territory

A big reason RGGI proponent’s optimistic forecasts won’t pan out, Dominion says, is that there is a geographic mismatch between the RGGI states and PJM Interconnection, the wholesale market of which Virginia is a part. The nine RGGI states are concentrated in the Northeast; the 14 states of PJM are located in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. The only overlap between the two are Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Because Dominion, Appalachian Power Co., and other electricity producers don’t control which power sources are dispatched to meet electric demand — PJM does — generators in Virginia would suffer a cost disadvantage compared to competitors in neighboring states not subject to RGGI, such as North Carolina and West Virginia.

“The effect of RGGI-equivalent reduction requirements in Virginia is likely to limit the dispatch of highly-efficient and lower-emitting [natural gas combined-cycle] facilities in Virginia and to encourage the dispatch of higher-emitting resources and increased emissions in neighboring states outside of the RGGI region,” states the IRP.

But environmentalists insist the cap-and-trade program will be beneficial. “Carbon pollution is a big contributor to climate change. Cap-and-trade is a market-based way of dealing with that environmental problem,” says Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“We think this is a really good opportunity,” says Harry Godfrey, Virginia director of Advanced Energy Economy. “To the extent that there are still older, coal-fired plants online, we foresee … less utilization of those assets in the future. But we see less utilization anyway. All of our analysis shows a coal-to-gas shift. … Our analysis shows that you can limit cost impacts, and even reduce rates in the process.”

How RGGI works

In 2009 ten Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states accounting for one-eighth of the U.S. population and one-seventh of its economic activity created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as an interstate cap-and-trade program. Broadening the geographic scope of the trading system beyond the boundaries of a single state, it was thought, would create a bigger pool of CO2-cutting opportunities.

Under RGGI’s “direct” auction trading system, RGGI sets a regional limit on the total amount of CO2 that power plants in member states are allowed to emit. Owners of fossil fuel power plants with capacity greater than 25 megawatts are assigned an allowance to release a certain amount of CO2. Then they are required to purchase pollution permits at quarterly auctions sufficient to meet that output. The plan is for RGGI to ratchet the CO2 allowances by 3% each year over a decade. Utilities and big industrial producers who can’t find ways internally to cut their CO2 emissions can go to the auctions to buy extra allowances. Power generators who can find ways to cut emissions economically can sell their excess allowances to those who need them.

In the first auctions between 2009 and 2011, RGGI sold 395 million tons worth of CO2 allowances. The cap was a generous one, so the auction price for allowances was low — ranging between $1.86 and $3.35 per ton — according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. As the CO2 allowances tightened, prices increased, reaching a high of $7.50 per ton in 2015. Prices fell after the Trump administration nixed the Clean Power Plan but the next round of CO2 emissions cuts — 30% by 2030 — likely will push the price back up. Continue reading

Supply, Demand Aligning for Solar in Virginia

Four percent of the nation’s power supply is used to power data centers. That figure will increase to 10% within the next decade. Meanwhile, major cloud providers are demanding clean energy sources consistent with their corporate values. For example, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook have joined the RE100 initiative committing them to generate 100% of their power from renewable sources.

Those numbers come from Garret Bean, vice president of development for sPower, the group behind Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposal to build a 500-megawatt solar farm in Spotsylvania County. He spoke yesterday at the 2018 Virginia Energy Conference. Virginia Business has the story here.

It’s a lot easier to “live your values” when the price of generating a kilowatt of solar power has dropped from $96 in 1970 to about 4 cents today. Between developments on the supply side and the demand side, the potential exists to build a whole lot of solar in Virginia. Indeed, Bean counts some 212 solar companies and 22 manufacturers in Virginia vying for a piece of the action.

What makes Virginia a particularly attractive place to prospect, despite solar’s slow start here, is that the state is ground zero for building new data centers. High bandwidth connectivity is critical infrastructure for data centers, and 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows through the commonwealth.

At present Virginia gets about half of one percent of its electricity from the sun. Inherently variable solar output doesn’t create grid reliability issues until it accounts for 20% or more of the electricity supply, so there’s plenty of room to grow.

The Logperch Veto

The Roanoke logperch

Virginia has its very own snail darter — the Roanoke logperch, a threatened species of fish, the existence of which could delay or even obstruct a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project.

The snail darter became a cause celebre for endangered species in 1973 when concerns arose that the habitat of the endangered fish would be obliterated by construction of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River. Although the dam ultimately was built, the controversy over the snail darter’s fate held up the project through years of legal appeals and eventually required a literal act of Congress to override a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Roanoke logperch is one of six endangered or threatened species whose habitat will be crossed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The ACP won’t obliterate the habitats of the logperch, the Indiana bat, the Northern long-eared bat, the Madison Cave isopod, the rusty patched bumblebee, or the clubshell mussel in the way that the Tellico Dam did the homeland of the snail darter. But the pipeline will cross these species’ habitats, subjecting them to additional stress, and perhaps killing some individuals. A federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had set unacceptably vague criteria for monitoring and complying with the Endangered Species Act. Pipeline foes regard the threat to the species as sufficient grounds to shut down construction.

A question unasked by the media in coverage of the ruling is just how threatened are these species? What impact might pipeline construction have on their habitat? Could the pipeline precipitate their extinction or will the effect be marginal? But alert reader D.J. Rippert raised the issue in a comment to an earlier article on the topic. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCM) Red List, he wrote, “the Roanoke Logperch is one notch above endangered. The key question is whether the pipeline would push it from vulnerable to endangered.”

Good point, Don. Let’s see what IUCM has to say about the six species in question. But first some nomenclature: A “vulnerable” species is one that is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve. The next steps up the ladder towards extinction are a “endangered” and then “critically endangered.” The term “threatened” applies to any species “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

Roanoke logperch. Precina Rex is listed as “vulnerable.” Its range extends through the upper Roanoke, upper Dan, and upper Chowan river systems. Eight populations are separated by wide river gaps or dams. The fish resides in riffles, runs, and pools with sandy to boulder-strewn bottoms. Despite the ongoing threats of urbanization, industrial development, flood control projects, and agricultural runoff, the population is believed to be increasing. However, siltation from agricultural “and other human activities” remains a concern.

Indiana bat. Myotis soldalis is listed as “near threatened.” The bat has an extensive range across the eastern United States but the range and population have shrunk in recent years.  The most significant threats to the species are habitat loss, forest fragmentation, winter disturbance and environmental contaminants. Half the bats are believed to hibernate in Indiana (hence the name); other major population centers are located in Kentucky and Missouri. Virginia is a minor and peripheral part of the bat’s range.

Madison cave isopod. Antrolana lira is classified as “vulnerable.” This tiny critter is an eyeless, unpigmented freshwater crustacean that lives in flooded limestone caves in the northern Shenandoah Valley, with documented population centers around Staunton and Harrisonburg. The ICUN database contains little information about the isopod. Contamination of underground water is the major threat to the creature’s habitat — definitely an issue in the karst terrain in Virginia mountain terrain.

Rusty patched bumble bee. IUCM does not have this species of bumble bee in its database. But Fish & Wildlife does refer to it as “endangered.” “Rusty patched bumble bees once occupied grasslands and tall grass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast, but most grasslands and prairies have been lost, degraded, or fragmented by conversion to other uses,” states the endangered species website. The range has constricted to 13 states, of which Virginia is one, plus one Canadian province. The biggest threat comes from intensive farming and the use of pesticides.

Clubshell mussel. Also not included in the IUCM database, the clubshell mussel is described by Fish & Wildlife as an “endangered” species. The bivalve, which lives in small to medium rivers and streams, once was found from Michigan to Alabama, Illinois to West Virginia — Virginia does not warrant mention as part of its range — and now is relegated to “portions of only 13 streams.” The major threats listed are pollution from agricultural run-off, industrial wastes, and extensive impoundments for navigation, all compounded by competition with the Zebra mussel.

Northern long-eared bat. The Northern long-eared bat does not appear in the IUCN’s red list but it is listed as “threatened” by Fish & Wildlife. The bat’s range extends throughout most of the Eastern U.S. and parts of Canada. Its population decline has been caused by the “white-nosed syndrome,” a fungal disease. The disease has spread to bats in Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is a superficial survey, and I welcome the input of anyone who has more detailed and authoritative knowledge. But it seems reasonable to draw several conclusions.

First, none of these species are “critically endangered.” Only two are listed as “endangered.” The other four are classified as “threatened” or “vulnerable.” Continue reading

Pipeline Runs Afoul of Endangered Species

Atlantic Coast Pipeline foes won a significant legal victory yesterday when the Richmond-based U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Fish and Wildlife Service Review of pipeline construction. Limits set by the federal agency for the protection of endangered species were “so indeterminate” that they rendered enforcement of the Endangered Species Act meaningless.

“This puts a stop to any work that could threaten rare and endangered species and that’s much of the pipeline route,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted D.J. Gerken, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who argued the case, as saying.

Dominion officials said they would push ahead with the project. “We will fully comply as required while we continue to construct the project,” said company spokesperson Jen Kostyniuk. “Although we disagree with the outcome of the court’s decisions, an are evaluating our options, we are committed to working with the agency to address the concerns raised by the court’s order.”

According to Gerken, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s review allowed for a “small percent” of endangered species to be killed during construction, but did not define what constituted a small percent. “A small percent would never get triggered because nobody knows what it is,” he said.

The project will cross the habitats of eight endangered or threatened species, including the Roanoke logperch, the Indiana and long-eared bats, the Madison Cave isopod, the rusty patched bumblebee, and the clubshell mussel.

Bacon’s bottom line: The ruling gives a moral victory to pipeline foes but I doubt it will be a significant blow to the project. Dominion Energy, the ACP’s managing partner, will argue with pipeline foes over how to define what constitutes a “small percent” of loss to the endangered species and what kind of protections are needed. The Fish and Wildlife Service will develop more specific criteria. Unless Dominion appeals the case, it will buckle under and spend whatever money it takes to comply. The company is so deeply committed to the project that it cannot afford to back out.

Update: Dominion issued a statement this morning: “”We remain confident in the project approvals and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will continue to move forward with construction as scheduled. This decision only impacts activities directly covered by the Incidental Take Statement in certain defined areas along the route. We will fully comply as required while we continue to construct the project. Although we disagree with the outcome of the court’s decision, and are evaluating our options, we are committed to working with the agency to address the concerns raised by the court’s order.”

Only A Brief Romance After All

The key to Dominion Energy’s successful efforts in the 2018 General Assembly was an alliance with the major environmental advocacy groups who saw several of their key goals achieved by the massive bill:  promises of more wind and solar generation and massive spending of ratepayer funds on energy efficiency programs, coupled with weaker cost-benefit requirements for those programs.

It was the environmental groups that brought substantial Democratic votes and the support of the Governor’s Office to the Dominion team.   The environmental advocates dominated the list of supporters highlighted in the final committee meetings (see above.)  As has been noted on Bacon’s Rebellion before, the major environmental groups give far more financial support to some Virginia politicians than do the utilities.

But the partnership didn’t hold as Dominion sought State Corporation Commission approval of a 100 percent renewable energy tariff, rejected by the SCC earlier this week.  Customers who want 100 percent renewable power (or want to claim that is what they are using, given who knows where each electron flows from) are currently free to seek a competitive supplier.  Many do.  The only way Dominion can drive the competition out of its territory is to create its own approved green tariff.

Years ago the General Assembly authorized an exception to the utility monopoly for any customer seeking 100 percent renewable power, unless or until the utilities came up with their own way to provide it.  It has proven to be a challenge.

The SCC rejected Dominion’s latest proposal after a hearing examiner found it really wasn’t a tariff but merely a formula for calculating a price based on several variables that would fluctuate.  It was not a fixed price, nor was it a predictable price, so how could the SCC rule it was a fair price?  (The term of art is just and reasonable.)  Should the SCC approve a formula that produced an unreasonable price, nobody would actually seek 100 percent renewable service – clearly not the General Assembly’s goal.

The other major problem:  Lacking its own green power, much of the renewable power would be bought from third-party providers or through PJM, and Dominion sought to layer on its own profit margin – the same margin in fact as is allowed for investments of its own capital.

The flaws in the proposal were gleefully highlighted by many of the same environmental activists and competitive energy companies who showed up on the supporter list for House Bill 1558.

“At its core this case is about retaining competition to provide a specific type of renewable energy in Virginia,” wrote attorney Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.  “If the Commission approves tariffs in this case, the competition for 100 percent renewable energy disappears, and participating customers with over one megawatt peak demand can no longer shop.”

Elsewhere in the same document:  “(T)he CRG Rate Schedules do not contain a rate, but instead they contain a formula for a rate with many key unknowns. The Company plans to base the inputs for several of these unknowns on internally-developed forecasts, which will not be subject to Commission oversight or review.  As a result, the ultimate rate produced by the CRG Rate Schedules may be higher than market prices depending upon the accuracy of the Company’s forecasts.”

Opposition also came from the existing third-party providers who are now able to compete with – and beat – Dominion.  These of course also make a profit on their business, but surely material gain could not be their motive!   In its final comments Direct Energy focused on the hearing examiner’s finding that the proposed profit margin was “inconsistent with traditional ratemaking principles because a utility makes no up-front investment in a (power purchase agreement) justifying a return to compensate investors for the cost of their capital.”

The SCC agreed with them and they stay in business in Dominion’s territory.  Dominion is free to compete with them, and has already done special contracts with companies like Amazon and Microsoft for Virginia-based facilities – but the operative word is “compete.”

Virginia’s other major investor-owned utility is advancing its own proposal at the SCC, and the case is in its earlier stages.  I’m still feeling my way in this minefield, but its proposed Rider WWS (Wind, Water and Sunlight) seems very different than Dominion’s, and seems to produce a more predictable price based on the market value of renewable energy credits (RECs) from its own assets.  Wal-Mart Stores and one other entity have already provided opposing comments, but the environmental groups have not weighed in yet.  Getting that camel’s nose of competition back out of the tent?  Not so easy.

 

Industrial-Scale Solar Comes to Virginia

Industrial-scale solar farm in California.

If you’re curious what an industrial-scale solar farm will look like, check out Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposed 3,500-acre solar facility in Spotsylvania County. The Utah company wants to build a 500-megawatt electric power generating station that would entail building approximately 1 million solar panels.

Writes the Free Lance-Star:

The proposed facility would produce enough energy to power all of Spotsylvania’s nearly 46,000 homes nearly twice over, but the company plans to sell the power to corporations throughout Virginia and possibly other states. Microsoft Corp. has said it plans to buy more than half of the energy produced by the solar farm to power its data centers in Virginia.

Think about it: 3,500 acres is more than five square miles. That’s a lot of land. Virginia, by way of reference, is 42,775 square miles. Let’s say the solar farms can supply electricity to 90,000 homes (at peak sunlight). It would take nearly 500 square miles of solar panels to supply all the homes in the state — and considerably more to supply all the businesses. We could be talking about solar panels covering 1% of Virginia’s land mass. This is a major land use issue.

In the early stage of Virginia’s solar development, developers are cherry-picking the prime sites — land located near existing transmission lines that spares the necessity of building power lines to tie into the grid. Rural residents seem to be highly ambivalent about solar farms as it is. Just imagine what will happen if all the good sites are taken and developers have to begin building transmission spurs to connect to the grid. Not only would that add a significant cost, it would require running the regulatory gamut. Inevitably, landowners would complain, especially if the solar developers resorted to eminent domain to cross their property. Opponents would draw upon the array of legal, regulatory and P.R. innovations pioneered to thwart projects initiated by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Under such conditions, would independent solar developers have the financial staying power to slog through those battles?

Perhaps the question is academic. Solar will not likely exceed 25% of Dominion’s electric power generation over the next couple of decades. I have no idea if developers will run out of suitable sites for solar farms by then. But who knows? If the Sustainable Power Group is talking about selling green power into the PJM grid, and if other developers follow its lead, perhaps the market for solar is bigger than what it would take to supply Virginia residents alone. The day the Old Dominion runs out of easily cherry-picked sites might come sooner than we think. Once solar reaches critical mass, it could well create a new set of conflicts and controversies.

Russian Trolls, Gas Pipelines, and Double Standards

Finally, an outlet of the mainstream media has caught on to an issue pushed for months by conservative blogs and websites: the fact that the Russians are working to thwart the construction of natural gas pipelines in the United States. The D.C bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain published last week an article highlighting the effort of Russian Internet trolls to halt the $3 billion Sabal Trail pipeline supplying gas to central Florida.

A crew from Russia Today, the state-backed television network, descended upon downtown Miami in late 2016, McClatchy says, to provide global news coverage of a rally for the purpose of “[turning] the public against the nearly completed pipeline.” The article continued:

What the demonstrators didn’t know was that so-called Russian internet trolls had been busy for two weeks encouraging people to turn out for the protests with posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They used phony, American-sounding identities — names such as Steven Cook and Amalie Baldwin. …

At least eight Russian accounts, most tied to the troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, sent at least 16 social media messages excoriating the Sabal Trail pipeline or retweeting messages from one of its most prominent opponents, a frequent guest on RT. The tweets were sent to a total of more than 40,000 followers as well as anyone else who saw them via hashtags.

The social media propaganda was part of a broad Kremlin campaign to disrupt the booming American energy industry, which seemingly overnight has emerged as a threat to Russia’s global dominance, U.S. authorities say.

The national news media has given extensive coverage to the role of Russian troll factories in aggravating social tensions and spoiling the 2016 presidential election, highlighting any link that might support the theory of “collusion” between the Putin regime and the Trump campaign. But until the McClatchy piece appeared, not a single mainstream media outlet had explored the incontrovertible evidence that the same trolls were seeking to thwart the fracking of natural gas and construction of natural gas pipelines – not just Sabal Trail but the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s also worth noting that none of the big MSM media outlets has yet to follow McClatchy’s lead in writing about the story.

Foes of fracking and pipelines have plenty of reasons to oppose the natural gas boom, so it’s not as if the Russkies are convincing them to stake out positions they wouldn’t take anyway. Indeed, the Kremlin’s digital warriors contribute nothing new to the debate; they just amplify arguments already in circulation. But there is no denying that the interests of environmentalists and Russians align: Both are trying to shut down expansion of the natural gas industry. Environmentalists are worried about global warming. The Russians want to suppress the ability of U.S. oil and gas producers to compete in world markets. In a vivid sign of the geopolitical implications, last November, the Polish national oil and gas company signed a five-year agreement to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, loosening Moscow’s leverage over the eastern European nation.

The MSM has been equally uninterested in the documented flow of money from Russian energy interests through the Bermuda-based Klein Fund to the California-based the Sea Change Foundation, which in turn funnels millions of dollars into environmental causes — one of which has been the left-wing, Charlottesville-based group Virginia Organizing, which opposes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline. The Russian money was co-mingled with contributions from various millionaires and billionaires at Sea Change, so it is impossible to say that “the Russians” were funding Virginia environmental groups. Still the finding that Russians were subsidizing the anti-carbon movement was a stunning revelation.

(I know of no evidence either to suggest that Russian Internet trolls have been feeding opposition to the ACP and MVP, although I doubt anyone has looked into the matter.)

The object of my ire here is not the environmental movement, which would oppose fracking and the pipelines with or without Russian interference. It’s the double standard of the mainstream media. If anyone in the Trump campaign so much as sneezed near a Russian, he prompted rounds of speculation about collusion, accusations that Trump is in Putin’s pocket, and wailing that American democracy is under assault. But when Russians try to manipulate U.S. energy policy? Silence. When Trump pursues a drill-baby-drill energy policy that shifts the geopolitical balance of power against Russia, thus demolishing the narrative of Trump doing Putin’s bidding? Nothing to see here, keep on moving.

The reality of Russian meddling says nothing about what kind of long-term energy future is best for Virginia. The fact that Putin would like to shut down the American gas industry is not in itself a reason that Virginians should support natural gas. We need to find an energy mix between gas, solar, wind, nuclear and coal that best balances the goals of cost, reliability and sustainability for us regardless of what the Russians or Trumpists want. But the blanket of silence, with the sole exception of this one McClatchy article, provides more proof, as if any more were needed, that the MSM operates in an echo chamber that drowns out any news that doesn’t fit its narrative.

Trump, according to Washington Post fact checkers, has lied more than 3,000 times since taking office. I believe it. The man clearly has a malleable, post-modern concept of “the truth.” But the MSM lies by omission every single day. Someone ought to check on that.