Category Archives: Environment

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.

Leveraging Offshore Gas Drilling to Build Offshore Wind

Can allowing this…

The Trump administration is opening up the East Coast of the United States to oil and gas drilling, but it’s not clear how much enthusiasm there is. A recent sale of drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico has attracted only “moderate” interest, reports the Financial Times, an indication that the oil & gas industry is more focused on expanding production in the country’s vast shale basins.

… help us get to this?

Last year the Department of the Interior cut the royalty rate it had been charged on production from leases in shallow water (less than 200 meters deep) from 18.75% to 12.5% in the hope of stimulating greater interest. But drillers submitted bids for only 148 of 14,000 tracts offered.

If the Trump administration can’t gin up much excitement in the Gulf of Mexico, where a mature oil & gas exploration and drilling infrastructure exists, it’s unlikely to do any better in the southern Atlantic states where no such infrastructure is to be found. Also discouraging interest is the reality than any effort to start drilling would ignite a firestorm of opposition. Why bother when shale can be fracked elsewhere with minimal fuss and muss?

But that’s today. Who can say what economic conditions and public opinion will look like in three or four years? What if public opinion could be swayed to look upon offshore drilling as a pathway to developing a viable offshore wind industry?

Environmental groups and Virginia Beach civic interests oppose offshore drilling, raising the specter of another Deepwater Horizon disaster — even though (a) any drilling off the Virginia coast would be in shallow water, while Deepwater Horizon occurred in… you guessed it… deep water, and (b) most, if not all, of the drilling would be for natural gas. I’ve never heard of a natural gas spill, and neither have you.

Indeed, the Commonwealth’s official energy policy supports offshore oil and gas drilling, with the caveat that no drilling occur within 50 miles of the shore. A 2005 study by the Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade found that natural gas exploration was safe, although if oil is discovered that the Commonwealth must “carefully consider the risk of spills.”

Is it not possible to work out a compromise that could allow drilling to move forward when market conditions permit while providing tough environmental safeguards? Here’s how we can do it.

First, let’s just take oil drilling off the table. Let’s make it official Virginia policy to permit no oil drilling because we want zero risk of oil spills. Drilling and production should be limited to natural gas only. (Do some wells produce both oil and gas? Can the gas in such wells be extracted while the oil is kept in the ground? I concede that some technical questions may need to be answered.) The vast majority of the energy wealth off the Atlantic coast is natural gas, so imposing an anti-oil restriction should not cripple the economics of offshore energy production.

Second, Virginia should get the first-mover advantage of establishing an East Coast offshore drilling industry. As the largest metropolitan area on the Atlantic coast between Miami/Fort Lauderdale and New York — and one with a large ship repair industry, at that — Hampton Roads would be the logical location for offshore companies to set up and do business. Thus, Virginia could get a significant economic-development bonus from the opening up of offshore drilling.

Third, an offshore drilling industry was the precursor in Europe to developing an offshore wind industry, and it could be the precursor in Virginia, too. The two sectors share many skills, competencies, services and specialized equipment. If Hampton Roads can develop an offshore drilling industry, it can lower the costs and risks of getting offshore wind companies to locate here. The lack of an existing industry is perhaps the biggest barrier to developing Virginia’s offshore wind resources — a desiderata of environmentalists and economic developers alike.

The immediate hold-up to large-scale development of wind resources is the need to test the performance of wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean, which has different seabed conditions and is subject to hurricanes. That won’t happen until the State Corporation Commission approves Dominion Energy’s proposed VOWTAP project, two costly test turbines that could never be justified on the basis of their electricity production alone.

But if the SCC approved VOWTAP, and if the turbines proved their efficacy in Virginia offshore conditions, and if a gas drilling business ecosystem had a toehold in Virginia, then the chances would improve immeasurably to persuade European wind companies to invest in Virginia for the purposes of building and maintaining a fleet of offshore wind turbines at an economical price. Virginia then could become the hub of offshore wind production for much of the entire Atlantic coast.

If we play our cards right, it should be possible to fulfill former Governor Bob McDonnell’s dream of making Hampton Roads the energy capital of the East Coast while not only protecting the environment but improving it.

Put-up-or-Shut-up Time for the Sun Spot Theory

Recent sun spot cycles. The last time the sunspot cycle was almost as weak as the current one was in the 1970s, a period of declining global temperatures that prompted widespread concerns of a new ice age. Image credit: sunspotwatch.com

I have frequently expressed skepticism of dire Global Warming scenarios by noting that the increase in global temperatures over the past 20 years fits the lowest range of forecasts made by the climate models. Sorry, folks, I just can’t get exercised about warming-generated calamities, no matter how many after-the-fact justifications are proffered to explain the failure of reality to conform with theory.

On the other side, the anti-Global Warming crowd has advanced an alternative explanation for climate change. The extreme skeptics suggest that solar activity — sun spots, or the lack of them — have a far greater influence on earth’s climate than the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. According to this theory, solar radiation interacts with the earth’s magnetosphere to block cosmic radiation from penetrating to the atmosphere and seeding cloud formation. Boiling the argument down to its essence, more sun spots predict higher temperatures on earth, fewer sun spots predict lower temperatures. We may have reached put-up-or-shut-up time for that theory as well.

The skeptics are getting excited now because the incidence of sun spots is crashing. Indeed, sun spots have almost disappeared. The last time the sun exhibited similar characteristics was in the 1600s, the so-called Maunder Minimum which coincided with a decline in global temperatures known to history as the Little Ice Age. If the solar warming rejectionists are correct, “global warming” could disappear in a hurry.

Writes Robert Zimmerman with the Global Warming Policy Forum:

If the solar minimum has actually arrived now, this would make this cycle only ten years long, one of the shortest solar cycles on record. More important, it is a weak cycle. In the past, all short cycles were active cycles. This is the first time we have seen a short and weak cycle since scientists began tracking the solar cycle in the 1700s, following the last grand minimum in the 1600s when there were almost no sunspots.

If the planet is entering a new solar minimum, the theory would predict falling temperatures. Perhaps not immediately — there may be buffering effects that aren’t well understood — but in not too many years.

Here’s the nice thing about the sun-spot theory: It’s a testable hypothesis. The theory states in no-uncertain terms that solar radiation as measured by sun spots is a key driver of earth’s climate. The theory says that cycles in earth’s temperatures closely match cycles in sun spot activity. We appear to be entering a phase in which sun spots are going dormant. Temperatures should drop — not just for a year or two but in a sustained matter. We should be able to confirm or disprove the sun-spot hypothesis within a few years.

If the sun-spot hypothesis is confirmed by the data and we see a decisive shift in temperature trends, the theory that posits CO2 as the driving climate variable will be dashed. Conversely, if the sun-spot model  is proven incorrect, a lot of moderate Global Warming skeptics (like me) will be more receptive to the CO2 model — although it still has to explain the two-decade-long pause. (“Pause” is not quite the right word. Global temperatures have crept higher. They just haven’t conformed to predictions.)

Perhaps I’m being naive to think that reality will settle the debate. Reality has a way of being frustratingly complex and ambiguous, and zealots are endlessly creative at devising fallback theories. We didn’t account for the effect of increased particulates in the atmosphere. Or temperatures didn’t rise as expected because the missing heat is lurking undetected deep in the ocean. 

The stakes of this scientific debate are huge. Climate change advocates want to de-carbonize the economy in order to fight what they fear is runaway and calamitous global warming. That means converting motor vehicles to electricity, and it means converting electric power generation to renewable sources. Market forces are pushing the electric power industry toward renewables — especially solar here in Virginia — but not rapidly enough to suit the warmists. The next big debate is whether Virginia should join the Global Greenhouse Gas Initiative a cap-and-trade regime to squeeze out electric-power carbon emissions. Ancillary debates are occurring on how Hampton Roads should deal with the rising sea levels expected to accompany the higher temperatures.

Here’s another hypothesis: The urgency of combating global warming is a driving force behind the insistence of the social engineers to restructure the economy. If global temperatures cool, that sense of urgency will diminish. Hard-core believers won’t change their minds, but the general public will. Conversely, if temperatures rise in the face of a new sun spot minimum, the warmists will be vindicated.

Pushing Forward Virginia’s Solar Future

Dominion solar facility in Buckingham County.

A couple of years ago, the rap against Dominion Energy Virginia was that it was hostile to solar power. That line of thought is harder to maintain now that Dominion is committed to build at least 5,200 megawatts of solar power — roughly a quarter of its generating capacity — by 2042. Dave Mayfield at the Virginian-Pilot has taken notice:

After many years as a laggard, Virginia has lately been emerging as a leader in the field.

Last year, it placed 10th among the states in new solar capacity installed, up from 17th the year before, according to a report compiled for the Solar Energy Industries Association. North Carolina ranked second, behind California.

The association projects that Virginia’s total solar generating capacity will more than triple over the next five years to roughly 2,000 megawatts – enough to power upwards of 200,000 homes.

Some industry officials and clean-energy advocates expect even-sharper growth during that time frame, and say the solar expansion almost certainly will accelerate across Virginia in the decades beyond.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this: “I think you’re going to see a lot more discussion about Virginia being a hot state for solar,” said Ivy Main, affiliated with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter who writes the “Power for the People VA” blog. Main has been relentlessly critical of Dominion’s approach to solar over the years.

So the rap against Dominion has changed. Now the criticism is that, yeah, 5,200 megawatts is pretty good, but 25 years takes too long to reach that goal. And, yeah, Dominion is building more solar, but it’s not opening up the grid fast enough enough to homeowners, small businesses and independent solar producers.

Regarding the first criticism: I expect Dominion’s enthusiasm for solar will increase in direct proportion to the falling cost of solar generation, smart grid technology, and battery storage. Just as the utility has gone from a minimal commitment to solar two years ago to a large-scale commitment today in response to changing economics and market forces — especially growing demand by data centers and large corporations for renewable energy — this “problem” will take care of itself. The main brake on solar adoption will be Dominion’s comfort level with integrating a huge solar fleet into its transmission and distribution systems while maintaining grid reliability during periods of peak demand.

The second criticism, opening up solar production to outside competition, is a thornier issue. Many companies would like a piece of Dominion’s electricity market (as well as that of Appalachian Power’s and that of the electric co-ops). These interlopers are nimble and innovative, and, given current price trends, they likely would be able to sell solar for less than the cost of generating electricity from coal, nuclear or even gas — if not now, then five years from now. If competition opened up as critics would like, Virginia’s incumbent utilities stand to lose significant market share.

But here’s the rub: Electric utilities are monopolies, and they are monopolies for a reason. They have the responsibility for maintaining the integrity and reliability of the electric grid. If the lights go out, the North American Electric Reliability Council, PJM Interconnection, the State Corporation Commission, and millions of customers will look to the likes of Dominion, Appalachian Power, and the electric co-ops to get them back on again. They won’t look to homeowners. They won’t look to the independent solar producers. They won’t look to the Sierra Club. The utilities are the ones with skin in the game.

Society and the utilities have struck a bargain: In exchange for ensuring the reliability of the system, society will grant them monopoly service territories and regulate them to provide an assured rate of return on their capital (absent incompetence on the utilities’ part). Reneging on that bargain and opening up the system to wide-open competition would undermine the utilities’ revenues and profits, exposing them to potentially massive write-offs. It should surprise no one that the utilities resist such an eventuality.

Ironically, Dominion led the charge for opening up the utility industry to competition some twenty years ago. The experience was widely judged to be a failure; little competition materialized. Then in recognition of that failure a decade ago, Dominion led the charge to re-regulate the industry in Virginia. We can debate the success or failure of the experience since then, but it does seem apparent that if the industry were deregulated in 2018, there would be plenty of competition on the power-generation side of the business — from merchant producers selling into the wholesale market, from entrepreneurs partnering with big corporations, from intermediaries buying wholesale electricity off the grid and re-selling it to retail customers, and from energy- and eco-conscious homeowners installing their own solar.

One approach to opening up the market for competition is to demonize the utilities. That’s a favorite trope of the Left, which is hostile to corporate power and profits to begin with. Another approach is to give thought to how to realign the incentives for Dominion, Apco and the electric co-ops to do the kinds of things society wants them to do — generate more renewables, allow more competition, invest in energy efficiency, etc. — and to realign them in such a way as to not trigger massive write-offs for power plants made obsolete by the changes. Virginia can choose an ideological route or it can choose a pragmatic path forward.

Under any scenario, building and maintaining the electric transmission and distribution remains a “natural monopoly” and would be subject to continued regulation. But deciding how to restructure electricity generation will be really complicated. In an ideal world, all power generators would sell into PJM’s wholesale market and the winners would be bidders who offer the best combination of price and sustainability. But if the incumbent utilities lose market share and revenues, who pays for cleaning up the coal ash ponds of coal-burning power plants? Who eats the cost of write-offs from obsolete generating units? Who pays to keep aging coal- or nuclear-power plants in reserve for back-up power? What are the implications of Virginia joining the Global Greenhouse Gas Initiative?

We haven’t begun to answer these questions. Indeed, only a handful of people are even asking them. After the exhaustive debate over the Grid Transformation and Security Act this year, there may be little appetite for any such conversations. But allowing for an appropriate respite from the recently concluded General Assembly session, perhaps we should begin the discussion.

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?

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.

Amazing Vines

If I have good karma and come back as an elevated life form, I hope to return as an evolutionary biologist. Upon ascending to something close to Buddhahood, I would like to be E.O. Wilson (whose most recent book I mentioned in my previous post). As it is, I am who I am, and I’m endowed with far more curiosity than knowledge.

That curiosity was sparked two days ago by my visit to Barton’s Cave in Belize, a cave used by the ancient Maya for ceremonial religious purposes including human sacrifice. Steep limestone cliffs flank the entrance, and from those cliffs hang remarkable vines related to the ficus family.

These vines originally took root in the nooks and crannies of the rock formation, extracting whatever water and nutrients they could from their barren perch. Nothing terribly unusual about that. All manner of scrubby plants find precarious rocky footholds. But these vines do something more — they grow a vine-like root that, over the process of years — our guide said decades — descends twenty-five to thirty feet until they reach the water below. Just think about that — for years those useless appendages dangle to little effect. But eventually they reach the water, and there they become transformed.

The vines sprout roots in the water. And over time, the roots trap sediment from the current, creating their own ball of nutrient-bearing soil. Over time, the vines grow thicker and stronger, yet they descend no deeper than a than a few inches. They have what they need, and they go no farther. I have seen tropical vines in other locales drop from trees and implant roots into the ground, but never have I spotted such a thing as this. I find it astonishing.

If Charles Darwin and E.O. Wilson were the godheads in the great chain of being, I would rank somewhere between a fruit fly and an anopheles mosquito. I have traveled relatively little, and what I have seen I have viewed through an ignorant eye. But I do look at the world of nature with a sense of wonder, and that is its own reward.

I Love this Goal: 10 Billion More Oysters

Oyster reef. Photo credit: Jay Fleming Photography.

I love this goal: Adding 10 billion oysters to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

A partnership of more than 20 organizations, businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions announced that objective earlier today. The 10 billion oysters will come from a combination of expanded restoration activities, fishery repletion activities, and the continued growth of the Bay’s oyster aquaculture industry.

“Oysters are so much more than the tasty bivalves that many know them to be. They are a crucial part of our ocean planet,” said John Racanelli, National Aquarium chief executive officer. “They help keep our waterways clean by removing harmful pollutants and they provide a hospitable place for other animals to live—from the backwaters of the Chesapeake Bay to the vast Atlantic Ocean.”

The partnership has established as its top three priorities ensuring robust funding for oyster restoration, establishing sound science-based management that ensures sustainable harvest of the Bay’s oyster population, and expanding the oyster aquaculture industries in Maryland and Virginia.

While I am a skeptic of global-warming alarmism, I consider myself an environmentalist. I happen to think that there are more productive ways to spend scarce public dollars than re-engineering the industrial economy of the globe to adjust CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Locally, we can accomplish far more good by investing funds in restoring the health and adaptability of the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are a keystone species. If we can restore their numbers, we can make a huge, visible difference.

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.