Category Archives: Energy

The Biggest Corporate Purchase of Solar Power in the U.S… Ever

Microsoft Corp. plans to buy about 60% of the energy production from a massive solar power project in Spotsylvania County to power its data centers in Virginia. The proposed 500-megawatt solar development, called Pleinmont, would include more than 750,000 solar panels on a 3,500-acre site, which, when completed, would be the fifth-largest solar site in the country.

“This is really important to Microsoft, and we think it is really important to Virginia for several reasons,” said Michelle Patron, director of sustainability for Microsoft. “This is going to be the largest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the United States. … We think this puts Virginia on the map for clean energy.”

The Pleinmont solar farm is being planned by Sustainable Power Group LLC, or sPower, which is a joint venture of Arlington-based AES Corp. and Canada-based investment fund AIMCo, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The project still requires approval by the State Corporation Commission. The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May and is soliciting public comments.

Microsoft has said that it has met its target to power at least 50% of its data centers with clean energy by 2018, and the company wants to achieve 60% clean energy by early 2020, says the Times-Dispatch. In 2016 the company had agreed to buy power from a 20-megawatt solar farm in Fauquier County.

Bacon’s bottom line: In all the excitement over grid modernization and the rollback of the electric rate freeze in recent months, I totally missed this story. But if Virginia is on track to build the fifth-largest solar facility in the country, and if the deal represents the biggest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the U.S., that’s a big deal!

Previous reporting by the Times-Dispatch noted that Pleinmont would sell its electricity into the PJM interstate wholesale power market to companies that want to offset their electricity consumption with power produced by renewable sources of energy.

Does this deal cut Dominion Energy Virginia out of the picture as an electric power generator? Does this represent a new strategic direction for Microsoft and other data-center companies, which are driving the growth in electricity demand in Virginia? In other words, is Dominion’s electric power-generating monopoly being eroded? Five hundred megawatts is a lot of electricity — roughly half the capacity of a new, state-of-the-art natural gas-fired power plant.

Or will Dominion swoop in later, as it has in several other solar deals, acquire the Pleinmont property, and count it towards its commitment to build 5,000 megawatts of solar power, as codified in the recently passed Grid Modernization and Security Act?

One more question: What does this mean for natural gas demand in Virginia?Data centers consume electricity 24/7, but solar power generates power only 12 hours per day (with output varying by the time of year). Where will the electricity come from in off hours? Do deals like this bolster or obviate the need to build any new gas-fired plants?

Nuclear Fortress

North Anna’s nuclear containment domes

How safe are Virginia’s nuclear power plants from terrorists, hackers and natural disasters? Let’s put it this way: Dominion worries about such threats 24/7 so you don’t have to.

In addition to interfering in U.S. elections, Vladimir Putin’s busy cyber-servants have been probing information technology weaknesses in U.S. industry and infrastructure. Sophisticated cyber-attacks have been ongoing since at least March 2016. Perhaps most alarming, the Department of Homeland Security asserted last week, Russian hackers gained access to critical control systems at unidentified nuclear power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage, the New York Times quoted Eric Chien, a security technology director at digital-security firm Symantec, as saying. “They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some missing political motivation.”

Journalist Ted Koppel highlighted the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid to attack in his 2016 book, “Lights Out: Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.” Novelists have imagined the horrifying societal collapse following the collapse of the electric grid. As for nuclear plants, the potential for radioactive contamination makes the threat even more terrifying. Fear-inducing scenarios involve terrorist takeovers, the theft of spent radioactive fuel, and jetliners slamming 9/11 style into nuclear reactors. 

The issue of security was top of mind for me when I toured Dominion Energy Virginia’s North Anna Power Station last month. I had the opportunity to pose the kind of questions that members of the public might ask.

I’m not qualified to render judgment on the effectiveness of Dominion’s security efforts, but I can say one thing: Security at the nuclear facility is something the company thinks about around the clock. Utility officials have spent enormous time and effort anticipating and preparing for any scenario you can imagine. Earthquake? Check. Hurricane? Check. Cyber-attack? Check. Armed terrorist attack? Check. Hijacked airplane flying into the nuclear containment dome? Check.

Based on what I learned, I’m not worried about natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The threat of cyber-sabotage continues to unsettle me, but the danger is to the transmission and distribution grid, not to nuclear power plants. Dominion officials assured me — and for a simple reason that I shall explain in due course, I believe them — that their nuclear power plant controls are not vulnerable to a cyber-threat.

If there had never been a Chernobyl or Fukushima, I might not even be asking these questions. As it is, those calamities did occur. We learned that, as thorough as they try to be, nuclear engineers don’t foresee every conceivable contingency. With nation states from Russia and China to Iran and North Korea seeking to penetrate and compromise our infrastructure, we need to keep up our guard. At the same time, we should avoid creating unnecessary alarm. So far, I’ve seen nothing that makes me lose any sleep.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, and aircraft strikes

On August 23 at 1:51:04 p.m., the control room of the North Anna Power Station began to shake, as if it were sitting on a giant vibrating phone, recalls Lee Baron, who worked in the control room then and now runs the company’s simulation center. Lights on the control board began blinking. Alarms emitted shrill beeping noises. Tiles fell from the ceiling. Outside the facility, some electric transformers cracked. 

The earthquake, the worst trembler to shake the East Coast in at least a century, exceeded what the power station had been designed for, says Baron, but the facility “shrugged it off.” Following Electric Power Research Institute guidelines, the operators powered down the plant without incident. After minor repairs and two months of intensive inspections, the nuclear station was up and running again.

Media attention focused on the fact that the North Anna station was located on an ancient geologic fault line. The fact that the epicenter of the earthquake was just a few miles away under the town of Mineral led many to conflate the two. But, the two fault lines were unrelated, says Richard Zuercher, manager-nuclear fleet communications for Dominion.

Indeed, as College of William & Mary geologist Chuck Bailey concluded in a 2012 review of maps, photos, and reports, the fault underlying the North Anna Power Station had last been active about 200 million years ago. On the other hand, as the Mineral earthquake demonstrated, the geologic plate upon which the East Coast rests was more active than previously supposed.

Unlike some earthquakes that have a highly localized impact that creates heavy damage, Zuercher says, the Mineral shaker, which registered 5.8 on the Richter scale, diffused its energy and caused light damage over a vast area. The quake was felt as far away as Atlanta and New Brunswick. Virginia does not face a California-like threat of a massive killer quake.

Hurricanes and tornadoes are another theoretical threat. The concern is that wind might pick up a cars or telephone poles and hurl them like projectiles. The nuclear reactors, a third of which are underground, are protected by massive containment domes made of compressed concrete lined by steel plate and reinforced by steel rebar.

The 4 1/2-feet-thick dome wall “is built to take a licking,” says B.E. Standley, the Dominion executive in charge of nuclear power plant safety. “It can survive anything short of an asteroid strike or zombie apocalypse.”  Continue reading

Reynolds Wins Customer Aggregation Petition

SCC headquarters

The State Corporation Commission has issued a decision expanding the right of large customers to bypass the monopoly franchises of Virginia’s electric utilities and purchase electricity from competitive suppliers.

While the General Assembly was embroiled in debate over grid modernization and the rollback of the electric rate freeze, the SCC approved the first ever “customer aggregation” petition. Reynolds Group Holdings Inc. now has permission to aggregate the demand of three of its subsidiaries at six locations in Virginia served by Dominion Electric Virginia for the purpose of purchasing electricity from someone other than Dominion.

Reynolds, based in Auckland, New Zealand, owns several packaging enterprises associated with the old Reynolds Metals, formerly headquartered in Richmond. According to the SCC ruling, the aggregated peak electric demand of Reynolds’ Virginia operations was 10.12 megawatts, representing approximately 0.06% of Dominion’s system peak of 17,000 megawatts. The impact on Dominion, which projects peak demand growth of 1.3% over the next 15 years, was de minimis.

It was not clear from the ruling whom Reynolds intends to buy its electricity from. However, Calpine Energy Solutions and Collegiate Clean Energy filed comments in support of the petition. California-based Calpine supplies natural gas, power and associated energy and risk management services to customers throughout the United States. Wilmington, Del.-based Collegiate supplies 100% clean energy solutions to universities and businesses.

Will Reisinger with the GreeneHurlocker law firm explains the significance of the ruling in a blog post:

[The] law allows large customers with annual demands over 5 MW to purchase generation from competitive suppliers. Importantly, the law also allows a group of customers to “aggregate” their demands in order to reach the 5 MW threshold. The statute treats large customers with multiple meter locations as different customers but allows them to aggregate to meet the 5 MW threshold. Once aggregated, the group will be treated as a “single, individual customer” under the law. Before allowing an aggregation, however, the Commission must find that the requested aggregation would be “consistent with the public interest.”

SCC Case No. PUR-2017-00109 was the first test of this statutory provision – that is, the first time a group of customers sought to combine their demands in order to reach the 5 MW threshold. In this case, Reynolds Group Holdings, Inc. (“Reynolds”), a metals and packaging manufacturer, petitioned the SCC for approval to aggregate six of its retail accounts in Dominion’s service territory.

Dominion and Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”) intervened in the case and opposed the petition. Dominion argued that allowing customers to aggregate their demand “would unreasonably expand the scope of retail access [and would] have the potential effect of eroding a significant portion of the utility’s jurisdictional customer base.” Dominion also suggested that the General Assembly – despite authorizing customer shopping and aggregation – intended to allow retail choice “only in limited circumstances.”

But the SCC, relying on the plain language of Va. Code § 56-577 A 4, rejected Dominion’s and APCo’s arguments and approved the petition. Dominion and APCo have until March 23, 2018, to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

No word yet from Reynolds, Calpine or Collegiate about what exactly they have planned.

Why Offshore Drilling Is Good for Virginia

By Mark Greene

According to a recent study, safely tapping Virginia’s offshore natural gas and oil reserves could provide nearly $1.8 billion of private investment annually in the Commonwealth. While many are quick to judge this initiative, all of the facts should first be considered.

For example, federal revenue sharing could help transform the state economy by sending billions in royalties, rentals and fees to our state coffers. By putting revenue-sharing programs in place -– like those already working for the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -–Virginia could benefit from offshore energy development to the tune of $235 million per year, according to the study. And that’s in addition to industry spending and high-paying jobs created that would help boost our economy.

“So, what’s trying to stop a reasonable exploration of what job creating resources might be available off our coast?,” asks former delegate Chris Saxman in a Roanoke Times editorial. “Fear. Fear accelerates order to disorder and hinders economic growth that will pay for the promises we have made.” He goes on: “Done properly, offshore exploration can create thousands of jobs that pay an average over $100,000 a year while providing tax revenue to also pay our hard working public employees like teachers, police, fire, and rescue personnel or we can dedicate that revenue to fixing interstates like I-81.”

To elaborate on Saxman’s point about the kinds of economic benefits offshore access could bring – here’s the picture of the Virginia projections if we were to develop oil and natural gas off of our coast, recently released by API:

Virginia

  • $2.1 billion in federal revenue sharing over the forecast, reaching $236 million per year at the end of the forecast.
  • $19 billion in industry spending over the forecast, reaching $1.8 billion by the end of the forecast.
  • $22.3 billion added to state GDP over the forecast.
  • 24,664 jobs gained by the end of the forecast.

Numbers likes these illustrate big economic opportunity for the whole state if we are included in a new federal offshore leasing plan now under development. Despite any kneejerk reactions that may have taken place initially, economic benefits of this size should compel policymakers to consider the needs of entire states when discussing offshore development.

At a House hearing last fall, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said natural gas and oil industry employment long has benefited her state. “We have men and women graduating from high school that are going to work in the oilfield and they don’t make minimum wage,” Landrieu said. ”They can make $80, $90, $100,000 a year. And that means a lot to their families, and it sends a lot of kids to college from south Louisiana.”

Offshore energy would be privately financed – reflected in the industry spending numbers above. That’s spending throughout state economies by natural gas and oil companies and their employees. It’s a boost to economic growth for portions of our state, like Southwest Virginia, that haven’t seen much growth for years.

Offshore energy is compatible with other ocean uses, including the military. It is safer than it has ever been and is always improving, thanks to technology, industry standards, safety management systems and employee training. No human enterprise is without risk, but industry’s premium on technology and safety – to protect its workers and the environment – properly manages this risk while producing energy and national security benefits for today and decades into the future.

“Interior’s offshore proposal is a critical first step to advancing a strong energy future for Virginia,” said Miles Morin of the Virginia Petroleum Council. “Not only can offshore energy exploration and development help provide reliable and affordable energy for Virginia’s consumers, but it can also be the cornerstone for economic growth and investments in our state.”

This is American energy that should be safely harnessed to benefit all Virginians – both on the coast and all across the Commonwealth.

Mark Green is editor of Energy Tomorrow, a publication of the American Petroleum Institute.

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

This will be one of those blog posts where many readers will ignore the substance of my arguments and go straight for the jugular — Dominion Energy Virginia sponsors this blog, I’m a shill for Dominion, and, therefore, anything and everything I say can be discounted without further thought. If you’re one of those people, I know I won’t persuade you. But please, if you object to my conclusion, don’t settle for the cheap ad hominem shot. Explain to me why I’m wrong.

This post was triggered by a Washington Post op-ed by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, titled, “Why I’m Breaking Up with Dominion.” Keam wrote:

In 2017, President Trump made it clear there would be no Clean Power Plan, which put Dominion in a bind. Dominion couldn’t justify continuing the rate freeze when the reason it cited no longer existed and it held nearly a billion dollars of potential customer refunds.

On the other hand, as Virginia’s most powerful political donor, Dominion couldn’t admit its mistake and simply return to pre-2015 status. So, Dominion launched an all-out lobbying campaign to push for a different result.

First some background: In June 2014, the Obama administration began implementing its Clean Power Plan. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff estimated that the plan would cost Dominion between $5.5 billion and $6 billion for Dominion to shut down coal plants and replace them with power from other fuel sources. Environmental groups suggested that the cost would be much less. But nobody knew for sure, and nobody possibly could know until the Commonwealth adopted a definitive methodology for calculating CO2 goals to be attained. When the General Assembly convened in January 2015, uncertainty reigned.

A deal was struck to freeze base electric rates through 2022 (while continuing to allow the SCC to adjust rates for fluctuations in the cost of fuel and pay for major capital projects). The purpose was to guarantee rate stability for electricity customers. Whatever the outcome for Dominion and Appalachian Power, customers wouldn’t be subjected to higher base rates. Dominion and Apco absorbed the risk. They might make higher profits if the costs were lower than feared, but they might make lower profits if worst-case cost scenarios panned out.

In November 2016 something happened that no one anticipated — Donald Trump won the presidential election, and he effectively spiked the Clean Power Plan.

But what if Hillary Clinton had won, as virtually all informed political opinion expected? It’s no stretch to think that the Environmental Protection Agency and the McAuliffe administration would have continued implementing the Clean Power Plan. We cannot know which of the regulatory options the administration would have chosen — setting CO2 emission targets based on mass-based limits (or total tons emitted) or rate-based limits (CO2 emitted per unit of electricity) — but we can safely assume that the new regulatory framework would have been more costly than doing nothing at all.

Continuing our counter-factual scenario, let’s say the Clean Power Plan framework adopted by Virginia would cost the $5.5 billion to $6 billion postulated by the SCC, and that Dominion had to eat a billion dollars or two in write-offs when it shut down its coal-fired power plants. Now let’s say Dominion came to the General Assembly, saying, sniff, sniff, poor us, these regulations are ruinous, could you please bail us out? What answer would Keam and others of like mind have given? They would have said, “Not a snowball’s chance in hell! You took yer chances and you lost. Now beat it!” And rightfully so.

Of course, that’s not the way things turned out. Dominion lucked out. Trump won the election and he canceled the Clean Power Plan. By January of 2018, Dominion was accumulating earnings way above its normally allowed rate of return (although a major weather event or a regulatory order to pay of billions of dollars to clean up coal ash ponds could have negated those profits).

Inevitably, a hew and cry was raised that Dominion was making out like a bandit by pocketing huge excess profits. Dominion was on track to make a lot of money, all right, but not like a bandit. More like a poker player. Dominion didn’t steal anything — but it did win the bet.

A lot of politicians and consumer advocates couldn’t see the difference. And, politicians being politicians, they ignored the risk that Dominion absorbed back in 2015 and clamored for a rollback of the freeze. The game they were playing can be described forthrightly as, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

When it became clear in the November 2017 elections that voters largely agreed with the anti-Dominion politicians, nearly obliterating the Republicans’ hefty majority in the House of Delegates, Dominion saw the writing on the wall. The utility seized the initiative with its proposal to end the freeze on its own terms — by reinvesting over-earnings into a massive grid-modernization plan. Politically, the ploy was brilliant. Dominion cut a deal with the new Northam administration, environmental groups, independent solar producers, and other constituencies, leaving Keam and his buddies to eat dust. I understand why the delegate is so sore.

The resulting Grid Transformation and Security Act may or may not be a good piece of legislation. I haven’t delved deeply enough into the details to conclude whether it will be harmful or beneficial to rate payers. We can be reasonably assured that it will be beneficial to Dominion, or the company would not have gone along with it. But if I were a senior Dominion executive, I’d be very wary of cutting a deal like the 2015 rate freeze ever again. Getting sucked into a heads-you-win, tails-I-lose political proposition is no way to run a business.

No Real Pipeline Story Here, But Read on If You Must

The public relations battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline continues unabated even as managing partner Dominion Energy edges closer to beginning construction of the 600-mile project. The latest flap surfaced in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning after the State Corporation Commission agreed, over Dominion’s objections, to accept expert testimony by natural gas industry analyst Gregory Lander in a hearing on Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan.

Lander, who was retained by environmental groups opposed to the ACP, concluded that the pipeline will cost Dominion ratepayers between $1.6 billion and $2.3 billion. That conflicts with Dominion’s estimate, based upon an earlier study by its own consultants, that the pipeline will save rate payers $377 million annually. Dominion’s estimate will be harder to maintain now that the Duke Energy, an ACP partner, has acknowledged that the cost of project has escalated from $5 billion to between $6 and $6.5 billion as the company adjusted its route and incorporated environmental protections to accommodate the demands of landowners and environmentalists. But that cost increase doesn’t come close to accounting for the discrepancy between the two estimates.

The Southern Environmental Law Center trumpeted the SCC decision to accept the Lander study as a big victory. “This is proof positive that Dominion’s pipeline will not cut costs to customers but instead increase our bills,” said SELC attorney Will Cleveland. “It’s further evidence that Dominion’s original promise – that the pipeline would save customers money and spur job growth in the Commonwealth – has disappeared.”

The Times-Dispatch made the Lander testimony the lead of its story. But I’m thinking that reporter Robert Zullo is reading too much into the SCC decision. Sure, Dominion tried to prevent the SCC from considering the Lander study, but SCC proceedings are full of filings and counter filings. It’s what utility lawyers and environmental lawyers are paid to do.

Moreover, it is silly to read into the SCC’s decision to accept expert testimony into the public record an implication that the SCC is prepared to accept that testimony’s main conclusions. As Zullo quoted SCC spokesman Ken Schrad as saying, “the order merely allows the testimony to be part of the record in proceedings on the plan, which the commission determined is ‘reasonable and in the public interest.”

“That’s not saying it’s right, wrong or indifferent,” Schrad said of Landers’ testimony.

As Zullo further reported: “Last year, pipeline opponents urged the SCC to issue an order requiring the Dominion entities to file an application for the approval of the [natural gas contract with the ACP]. The commission dismissed the petition, stating that if the deal creates unreasonable costs, the remedy is to deny the utility the ability to recover them from customers in a fuel proceeding.”

At some point, the ACP will be built and will start supplying gas to Dominion Energy Virginia. Dominion will petition the SCC for a fuel rate adjustment. That rate hearing will be where the rubber meets the road. Dominion will submit its evidence, environmentalist and consumer groups will submit their evidence, all sides will get an opportunity to critique one another, and the SCC judges will weigh the testimony and decide whether a rate adjustment is justified and, if so, how much.

Zullo knows this — indeed he alluded to it in his article. But he’s a reporter like any other, and he hyped the clash between the SELC and Dominion. Otherwise, it looks like, there wouldn’t have been much from the IRP hearing to report.

Tax Credits for Virginia Coal Mining?

Underground coal mining is a capital-intensive business. Do state tax credits really make a difference?

The House of Delegates has passed a bill sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, in the House and Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, that would provide state tax credits for the production of metallurgical coal.

The legislation, which would offer $200,000 in tax credits next year and about $500,000 the year after, is more modest than previous efforts, which would have cost the state some $7.3 million in coal tax credits. But former Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed those bills, and Kilgore is hoping that the scaled-back version will pass muster with Governor Ralph Northam.

“At some point and time, you’ve got to figure out how to move forward, and this is how we move forward this year,” Kilgore said, as reported by the Roanoke TimesReinstating the credits would help protect the remaining coal jobs in Southwest Virginia’s struggling coalfields region, he added. 

Bacon’s bottom line: Coal production and coal employment have plummeted in Southwest Virginia over the past three decades, and the mountainous region has not found an industry to replace it. I’m not persuaded, however, that $200,000 or even $500,000 a year will make much difference. Virginia has been mining coal for more than a century, and the most accessible coal seams are played out. The remaining coal lies in seams that are either very thin and expensive to mine or deep underground and expensive to mine.

The state is blessed by one thing, however: the high quality of the coal. Virginia coal tends to have the characteristics that make it appropriate for conversion into coke, which is used in making steel. Metallurgical coal, which is currently enjoying an export boom, accounts for 60% to 70% of the coal coming from Southwest Virginia. Deep underground mines cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, and the big coal companies don’t make that kind of commitment unless they have long-term contracts that lock in the price. Compared to the cost of developing a new mine or keeping an existing one open, a half million dollar tax credit sounds like a drop in the bucket. I would like to see the evidence that the tax credit will encourage additional production.

Rather than doubling down on an inevitably declining coal industry — when the coal is gone, it’s gone and nothing can bring it back — I would urge Southwest Virginia’s legislators to consider applying their energy and creativity to diversifying the economy.

I know of two technologies being developed at Virginia Tech that could bring economic benefits to the region. One is a laser sensor that can be deployed in underground mines to detect methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide for the purpose of averting explosions like the one that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. That technology, if deployed, could create a significant business opportunity for a Southwest Virginia engineering firm.

Another technology would process gob piles — the mountains of waste resulting from the separation of coal from mineral rock. Gob piles contain considerable coal fines. Another Virginia Tech technology would capture those fines along with other potentially valuable minerals. That innovation holds out the potential for extracting wealth from the massive gob piles dotting the coalfields in Virginia, the Appalachian coalfields, and even the rest of the world.

Then there’s the idea of rebuilding the regional economy in part around outdoor tourism. A half million dollars a year arguably would do a lot more to jump-start positive change in that direction than it would to rejuvenate coal mining. The Bacon family is planning a vacation this fall to New England, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing if the small mountain towns of the People’s Republic of Vermont are bucking the trend of rural decline. I would be delighted if Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Chafin should decide to join us in looking for alternate models of economic development!

Grid Transformation Controversy Shifts to SCC Nominees

The legislative logjam over a controversial electric grid modernization program appears to have broken. The much-modified legislation, backed by Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia investor-owned electric utilities, has passed the House of Delegates and state Senate, and in the estimation of Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Robert Zullo, “could be headed to … Northam’s desk by the end of the week.”

The legislation will enshrine the “investment model” advocated by Dominion Energy Virginia of using rate over-earnings to help pay for building the electric grid of the future, including more solar and wind power, energy efficiency, power-line burial, a pumped-storage facility, a “smart” grid, and hardening against cyber-sabotage and terrorist threats. Opponents say the law could lock in excess utility earnings for years.

Assuming the bills in both houses can be reconciled and enacted into law, the battle between Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and their detractors won’t be over. The action just moves to the State Corporation Commission. The SCC staff and three judges will hold a series of evidentiary hearings on a long list of proposed investments, and they will balance the broad objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability when deciding whether to approve the requests. Presumably, they will take into account the declaration of the General Assembly that grid-transformation projects are in the “public interest.”

The SCC judges will have latitude — exactly how much is not clear — to draw their own conclusions. So it very much matters who serves on the commission. And it very much matters who will fill the position to be vacated by Judge James C. Dmitri, who, among the three judges, arguably has been the most critical of the electric utilities.

Yesterday the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee interviewed three candidates to replace Dmitri:

  • C. Meade Browder, Jr., assistant attorney general,
  • David W. Clarke, a Richmond lobbyist representing gas and insurance companies, and
  • Maureen Matsen, legal counsel for Christopher Newport University and a former deputy secretary of natural resources under former Governor Bob McDonnell.

Committee Chair Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, a long-time friend of the electric utilities, made it clear that he wants to see the SCC get with the program. Wagner accused the commission, reports Zullo, of an inability to “see the big picture” because of a narrow focus on electric rates and consumer costs.

Wagner compared the commission to a short-sighted business owner who can hoard money by failing to invest in his company but “will end up going out of business for failing to keep up.

“They take that myopic approach despite many statements, getting more and more bold, from the General Assembly as to what the policy is for the future of Virginia and ensuring that those investor-owned utilities make the necessary investments for the long-term good of all Virginians,” Wagner said.

The SCC judge candidates, who are appointed by the General Assembly, expressed support for the new direction of electricity regulation.

Said Brouder: “I’m aware of your particular interest in that area. … I think any commissioners would work within the regulatory framework that y’all have laid out.”

Said Clarke: “It’s clear to me that the sense of the General Assembly is that we need to have more investment. Those things don’t come without a price tag on them, no question.”

Said Matsen: The commission “needs to be a broader, wider vision” on how it handles “a tremendously dynamic and exciting time for the energy industry.”

ACP Cost Overrun Could Run to $1 Billion

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, originally estimated to cost about $5 billion to $5.5 billion, now is expected to cost between $6 billion and $6.5 billion. That estimate comes from CEO Lynn Good of Duke Energy, one of the pipeline’s four corporate partners, in a Tuesday earnings call, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Due to delays and more stringent conditions in the permitting process, ACP now estimates total project costs between $6 (billion) and $6.5 billion,” Good said. A Duke spokesman affirmed that the pipeline still remains “the most competitive of all the options we evaluated in the early planning phases” and that “consumers in the region will realize significant energy cost savings.”

ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby said he could not confirm Good’s estimate. “We’ll have more information to provide with our financial disclosure next week,” he said.

“It’s no surprise that the cost of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline keeps going up,” said Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Dominion and Duke chose a route with dozens of complex problems through some of the steepest, most undeveloped lands in the Southeast.”

The big question to Virginians is how much, if any, of this added cost will be passed on to rate payers. At some point, Dominion Energy Virginia (a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, which is the managing partner of the pipeline) will have to file with the State Corporation Commission for permission to build its fuel procurement contract into the rate base. The SCC will have to determine whether the costs embedded in the contract were prudently incurred. That hearing ought to be very interesting.

More Facts, Less Alarmism, Please, Regarding Offshore Drilling

Coal Oil Point in California

I don’t know much about offshore drilling for oil and gas. But, then, I’m not sure that many vociferous opponents of drilling off the Virginia coast know much about it either.

A case in point is a quote, reported in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, by Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th:

As we learned from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, accidents can be unimaginably destructive, devastating the marine environment, wrecking entire industries and potentially affecting the health of local residents.

McEachin said he would resist offshore drilling “every step of the way.”

Yes, Deepwater Horizon was an environmental disaster. But is that catastrophe a useful comparison for offshore drilling in Virginia? Deepwater Horizon was drilling a deep exploratory well at a depth of about 5,100 feet. The drilling took place in conditions of massive water pressure that would be absent on the continental shelf of the Virginia coast where the average water depth is about 200 feet.

An appropriate comparison would be with offshore drilling operations taking place on the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. According to LiveScience, 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Between 1971 and 2000, U.S. Outer Continental Shelf offshore facilities and pipelines accounted for only 2 percent of the volume of oil spilled in U.S. waters.

Compare that to the volume of oil that naturally seeps from the seafloor. A single seep, Coal Oil Point on the California coast, releases about 10,000 gallons per day — about 3.6 million barrels yearly — according to the Stop Oil Seeps California website. Has that turned the coastline into an ecological disaster zone?

Here’s what the Coal Oil Point Reserve website has to say about the wildlife there:

One of the best remaining examples of a coastal-strand environment in Southern California, the Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve protects a wide variety of coastal and estuarine habitats. Largely undisturbed coastal dunes support a rich assemblage of dune vegetation and rare wildlife, including the dune spider, the globose dune beetle and the threatened Western Snowy Plover. …

Thousands of migratory birds visit throughout the year. Coal Oil Point Reserve is part of Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) and it is visited daily by birders. …

Vernal pools host a number of rare and endemic species.  At low tide, the intertidal and subtidal zones at the reserve provide an opportunity to observe the rich assemblage of invertebrates and algae living on the rock formations.

Not exactly a toxic hellhole.

The conditions in Virginia are not the same as in California; they aren’t the same as in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe a sober-minded analysis would show that offshore drilling would pose a genuine threat to Virginia’s precious coastal environment. I await that study. In the meantime, I’m not paying much heed to politician’s heated rhetoric regarding topics about which they know nothing.