When Dynamic Pricing Meets Energy Storage

When Dynamic Pricing Meets Energy Storage

Other states are targeting energy storage as an industry of the future but Virginia may have the most hospitable climate for it.

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Towards a Smarter Grid

Towards a Smarter Grid

Dominion Virginia Power is using big data to increase the reliability of its electric distribution network. The result: Fewer disruptions and shorter outages for customers.

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An Intractable Dilemma

An Intractable Dilemma

When Dominion shuts down the Yorktown Power Station, Virginia's Peninsula will need another source of electric power. Dominion says a 500 kV transmission line over the historic James River is the the best. Conservationists disagree.

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It’s the Buzzard Talking

It's the Buzzard Talking

If you want to understand why Dominion Virginia Power does what it does, visit the Henrico County operations center where the company manages 6,400 miles of electric transmission line.

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A Plethora of Pipelines

A Plethora of Pipelines

Four companies are talking about building gas pipelines through Virginia. How many are needed -- and who decides?

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Geography, Charity and Competitive Advantage

Source: "The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015"

Source: “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015”

by James A. Bacon

I had always thought that Virginians were more charitably inclined on average than other Americans, but apparently that’s not the case. Data published in Old Dominion University’s “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015” report indicate that Virginians give a considerably smaller percentage of their income to charity (presumably as measured by itemized charitable deductions in tax filings) than do Americans overall. Hampton Roads residents buck the trend, contributing significantly more than the state average of 2.85% of income — though still below the national average of 3.7%.

“It is certainly notable that Portsmouth, a city whose residents are much less prosperous financially, nonetheless more than doubled Loudoun County in terms of the percentage of residents’ income given to charitable endeavors,” states the report, whose lead author is ODU President Emeritus James V. Koch. “This suggests a degree of anomie and lack of identification of Loudoun County residents with their surroundings.”

Koch raises an interesting point. I would go a step further and suggest a hypothesis that Koch, who has amassed an enormous database of local- and metropolitan-level statistics, perhaps could test: The longer people have lived in an area and the more they have sunk their roots there, the more likely they are to contribute philanthropically. Many of Loudoun County’s residents are newcomers who have yet to develop strong ties to their communities. To cast that statement in the form of a testable hypothesis, I would predict a strong correlation between the average length of residence and the rate of migration in and out of a locality and/or a metropolitan region and the proclivity of the population to give to charity. That is not the only factor influencing the rate of giving, but it would be an important one.

By this logic, the charity-mindedness of Hampton Roads actually may be understated. Because the region’s largest industry is the military, which rotates a significant percentage of the population in and out  with great regularity, the population of long-term residents has a lot of slack to take up.

The report also publishes a list of largest Virginia-based charitable organizations, ranked by 2012 grants. The largest are national in scope, such as the NRA Foundation and the Freddie Mac Foundation. But of those that are primarily local in scope, Hampton Roads leads the pack. Leading the way is the Batten family, associated with three different foundations that dispensed more than $30 million in 2012. All told, eight of the state’s 40 largest foundations are located in Hampton Roads.

“State of the Region” pays particular attention to the South Hampton Roads United Way and whether the multitude of programs it oversees could be more efficiently funded.

The United Way’s review of funding candidates is unquestionably laudable; however, the consensus in the charitable world is that analogous programs need to be in place to provide additional ongoing monitoring and guidance for existing charitable organizations that have long been around. Such organizations can get stuck in a rut operationally and lose their energy and efficiency. It is not easy to scrutinize existing charities, but it is an important task that directly affects the eventual impact of the United Way.

Bacon’s bottom line: More attention needs to be given to the role and influence of philanthropy and not-for-profits in the study of U.S. metropolitan areas — not just to their operational efficiency but to how well they advance a community’s strategic goals. To grow the economy, raise the standard of living, make the community attractive to newcomers, and address the needs of the less fortunate requires collective action over and above what government can do. From my observations of the Richmond area, there is a relatively stable “philanthropic capacity” — a sum of money that corporations and affluent individuals are willing to donate over the course of a year. How much money a community raises and how it dispenses that money — either to present-oriented projects such as supporting cultural institutions and helping the poor, or to future-oriented projects such as investing in universities, medical facilities and economic development — shapes the region for better or worse.

Incubating Big Ideas

Wei Zhang in his lab.

Wei Zhang in his lab.

by James A. Bacon

Wei Zhang, a research scientist at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, concluded that the polymer coatings he was studying had commercial potential. The chemical, when applied to power lines, aircraft wings or wind-turbine blades, would prevent ice from building up. By affecting the surface bonding at a molecular level, the coating would release the ice before it became too heavy.

The science was promising enough that he won a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop it further. He needed a business incubator with low overhead and business support that would allow him to pursue the technology. Fortunately, he found a suitable location — the Dominion Resources Innovation Center. The incubator, founded in a partnership between Dominion Resources, Hanover County and the Town of Ashland, specializes in the technology and energy sectors, providing early-stage companies with inexpensive office space, mentoring, guidance and business support.

“Scientists running a company don’t do well by themselves,” said Zhang yesterday at a re-launch of the innovation center at a new location in Ashland. But the board of directors gave him valuable advice, and he got a useful letter of support from Dominion stating that the electric power industry needs his product. Zhang even worked with Town of Ashland staff to develop applications for protecting landscaping from freezing.

The work went so well that Zhang’s company, Polymer Exploration Group (or PEG for short), won a second-phase, $750,000 SBIR grant take the product to the next stage, as well as a National Institutes of Health grant to use the polymer to develop an anti-microbial coating. At present, Zhang can produce only small volumes of the polymer — a half-liter at a time — and a major challenge is to ramp up his production capability. He sees huge markets anywhere ice is the enemy. At the moment, he says, the most immediate market appears to be fishing boats in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

PEG, which now employs five, including Zhang, is only one of several promising enterprises to emerge from the incubator, which initially was housed in an old warehouse. The new facility, shared with town public works employees, is located in downtown Ashland in the old volunteer fire department building. The incubator provides nine single-room offices, including three wet labs. The mentoring and support is just as important as the space, if not more. The hands-on board provides a network of contacts and relationships that someone like Zhang, a Chinese national who has lived in Richmond since 2000, would find incredibly time consuming to replicate.

Mary Doswell, Dominion’s senior vice president for alternate energy solutions, said the company committed to support the incubator in 2009 to “send a signal to the community about our interest in innovation.” Now, she said, the incubator is being integrated with Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and the Innovation Council to create “a regional innovation ecosystem.”

Although Dominion does not insist that tenants work on technologies that interest the power company, things have worked out that way. Dominion could be a customer eventually for Zhang’s ice-shedding polymer, and it could be a partner of Analytics Corp., to commercialize what founder Weston Johnson calls a high-efficiency, high-torque motor that operates at low speeds. That particular cluster of attributes, says Johnson, has applications ranging from industrial fans to wind turbines.

Johnson, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky, launched an earlier business — a hand-held spectrometer to be used by law enforcement — that didn’t turn out so well. But the experience taught him a lot and prompted him to move back to Richmond, where he started work on an idea he had developed in his Ph.D. dissertation. Johnson’s insight is that new materials invested by the semiconductor industry for use in microelectronic circuits make it possible to run motors with electric fields rather than magnetic fields. The process eliminates parts and drives down costs. He claims that the technology, if perfected, could drive down the installation cost of a wind turbine by 40%.

Johnson launched his business with $200,000 raised from family and friends. Locating in the Innovation Center was critical to his success, says Johnson. “The Center provided skill sets that I didn’t have to hire.” Zhang, he says, was an especially valuable sounding board. He has nearly completed his prototype, which he hopes will provide proof of concept ideas and win him another round of investment that will let him build a field-demonstration model.

Only a handful of enterprises emerging from incubators ever create enduring businesses. Zhang and Johnson, both of whom have acquired their own facilities, still have many obstacles to surmount before creating sustainable business models. Whatever their prospects, there is no denying that the Dominion Innovation Center succeeds in incubating big ideas.

The Hampton Roads Economy in Two Graphs

Recession recovery in the U.S., Virginia and Hampton Roads, measured by total jobs restored, 2007-2015. Source: "The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015."

Recession recovery in the U.S., Virginia and Hampton Roads, measured by total jobs restored, 2007-2015. Source: “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.”

Hampton Roads didn’t have a bad year in 2014 — its economy grew 1.34%, higher than its growth rate in five of the previous six years. But that growth still didn’t come close to getting the economy back to pre-2007 recession levels, according to the 2015 “State of the Region” report published by Old Dominion University’s Center for Economic Analysis. The region still employs 15,000 fewer employees than in 2007.

The recent decline in defense spending — 3.2% below its 2011 peak — hasn’t helped (although it’s worth noting that defense spending is higher than in 2007).

Estimated direct Department of Defense spending, 2000-2015. Source: "State of the Region."

Estimated direct Department of Defense spending, 2000-2015. Source: “State of the Region.”

Writes lead author James V. Koch, ODU president emeritus:

The upshot of declining DOD spending is that it has forcibly diversified the Hampton Roads economy. We estimate that only 39.3 percent of our regional economic activity could be attributed directly and indirectly to defense spending in 2014. This is down from 44.9 percent in 2011 and our all-time high of 49.5 percent in 1984.

The region’s three other main industries are tourism, shipbuilding and ports. Tourism, as measured by hotel revenues, had yet to recover to 2007 levels by 2014 (although they may do so this year). Within the tourism sector, Virginia Beach has gained market share while the Historic Triangle has lost. Shipbuilding has been a bright spot; industry employment exceeds 2007 levels by 4,600 jobs.

Direct port-related activities account for 6% of the Hampton Roads regional economy. Cargo shipments reached a record level in 2015 at 210,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Despite important advantages such as deep channels, cargo growth lagged that of East Coast ports as a whole. But the ports may represent the region’s best best for diversification from the military, the report suggests. It is well situated to handle the giant super-ships dominating the sea lanes. If the ports can deal with some off-terminal productivity issues, the could see continued growth.


Why Released Felons Fail

stacked_odds2by Sarah Scarbrough

Society chastises criminals, felons, addicts and others getting out of jail. The average citizen today thinks this population consists of bad guys. Why should people care about repeat offenders? They deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. But in the next breath, people decry generational cycles of criminality and the high rates of recidivism.

Have you ever thought the two might go hand in hand?

It isn’t easy to escape the cycle. Let me present three situations that will make you think in a different vein – and, if not, at least give you food for thought. The stories below are true; some names have been changed to protect their identity.

Meet Scott. He’s a 39-year-old African American male. Scott met a girl that he really fell for. He was over 18; she was just shy of 18 years old. The girl’s mom didn’t like Scott, not one bit. She threatened him if they didn’t break up. Scott cared too much for the girl to leave her, so the mom filed charges against him for having sex with her underage daughter. At this point, in 1998, Scott was put behind bars. Criminality began with narcotics and related charges over the next 18 years.

Scott just finished serving 24 months for a hit and run. While he was locked up this time he did everything he could to rehabilitate himself. He worked extremely hard, and seven days a week. Many people recognized his work and he received constant commendations. As Scott neared release, however, he had nowhere to go. He literally was going to be homeless after release. He did not have one single person to call for help, not even someone to pick him up after he was released. He had four t-shirts and three boxers to his name – that is it. No socks, shoes, or pants. No money either, not a penny.

Scott seemed destined to live on the street corner somewhere, maybe under a bridge if it was raining. Fortunately, he was such a hard worker and had reached out for help to so many jail staff while incarcerated that donations came in like crazy. (The picture above shows the donations.) He received two bus tickets as well. But he was had nowhere to live. Not only did he not have money to fund a place, but he was a sex offender, making it close to impossible to find his own place. Because he was going to be on state supervision, he was set up to stay in a local hotel. Between the donations, including some non-perishable food items, and the hotel, we thought he would do OK. Little did we know the continued obstacles he would face.

Scott had no refrigerator or microwave in his hotel room, thus preparing food was tough. He did not have any money – literally not a dime. How was he supposed to eat? Open a a can of green beans and eat straight out of the can. Or eat protein bars for all three meals? He could not eat the mac ‘n cheese because he couldn’t heat the noodles. There were roaches covering his hotel room – on the first morning at the hotel he killed over 50 roaches (not an exaggeration). He needed to get a state ID to get food stamps. Well, the ID costs $15. He then needed a document from the Virginia State Police to get the ID. That cost $30. With no money, how could he get these items? Without these items he couldn’t get food stamps. Without the food stamps, he could not to eat. Without an ID he couldn’t get a job either. Wow, talk about setting someone up for failure. No wonder some many people have trouble breaking the cycle.

Fortunately, someone he networked with while in jail took Scott under his wing. His friend paid for the ID and the state police document, bought him McDonalds for lunch on the day of release, and bought him Wendy’s for lunch the next day. Wow, thank goodness he found this person. But not everyone in Scott’s position finds someone to help. If he hadn’t had this person helping him, it would have been next to impossible to escape the cycle. Sadly, the person who took Scott under his wing stated to me via text, “He seems depressed. He’s been institutionalized. He’s on his own, with nobody and he’s lonely. To top it off, HE KNOWS HE HAD IT BETTER IN JAIL.”

Wow, he had it better in jail. But it makes sense. Three meals, heat, and a roof over his head with no roaches, all of his basic needs were taken care of. Despite these obstacles, Scott began working on his forklift certificate after release, got a job interview in two days seven days after release, and landed another job interview later in the week. This is awesome. But how hard will it be for Scott to succeed considering everything is working against him? Continue reading

Spilt Milk

spilt_milkJust a reminder, sometimes “settled science” isn’t so settled. Headline from today’s Washington Post: “Is Whole Milk Good for Us After All?”


Speaking of Gay Rights…

gay_marriageLike a lot of other Americans, I have been slow to embrace the right of gays to marry. That’s because I respect the sanctity of an institution — marriage as the union between a man and a woman — that evolved over thousands of years. But, ultimately, my libertarian instincts prevailed.

As a libertarian/conservative, I espouse a win-win view of human rights. I don’t think, for example, that there is a fundamental human right to education or health care. Those so-called “rights” are derived, or subsidiary, rights. Financing one person’s “right” to health care can be achieved only by taking someone else’s property, thus harming that person. That’s not to say that society shouldn’t provide health care to all, but universal access to health care is something to be bestowed through legislation, not as a fundamental right.

What is a fundamental right? The right to vote is fundamental. Giving John the right to vote does not deprive Mary of the right to vote. Giving John the right of free speech does not deprive Mary of the right to free speech. Giving John the right to a trial by jury does not deprive Mary of the right to a trial by jury. Giving all citizens equal treatment under the law is a fundamental right.

By the same logic, giving Heather’s mommies the right to be married, along with all the privileges and appurtenances permitted under the law, does not deprive John and Mary of the right to marry.  So, while my heart tells me to support the traditional idea of marriage (not because I’m anti-gay, but because I’m pro-traditional marriage), reason tells me to support gay marriage. In this particular matter, I follow my head over my heart.


Why Doesn’t Heather Have Two Daddies?

heatherNews from Attorney General Mark R. Herring: Virginia has issued 2,670 marriage licenses and 70 birth certificates to same-sex couples since gay marriage became legal in Virginia a year ago. So reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The figure that startles me is the 70 birth certificates. Presumably, male same-sex couples are not giving birth (although I suppose it’s possible that gay men could hire surrogates like some heterosexual couples do). According to highly authoritative information I scraped off the first page of Google search results, the number of married gay females nearly equals the number of married gay males nationally. If national trends hold true in Virginia, that implies that about 1,300 gay female couples account for those 70 births. But that’s just a guess. I would be interested to see the break-down of the births by the gender of the parents.

Ignoring the ethical, religious and political dimensions of gays raising children, I’m fascinated from an anthropological perspective. Are gay women more inclined to want children than gay men? (I’m guessing that’s the case: After all, the name of the book was, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” not “Heather Has Two Daddies.”) Do gay women tend to be more nurturing than gay men, just as women are more nurturing than men in the general population? How do gay women decide which spouse bears the child? If they want more than one, do they take turns?

So many questions. This should be a fruitful field of inquiry for an aspiring young social scientist.


Fuzzy Thinking at the Top

Woolly headed

Woolly headed

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe views the implementation of the Clean Power Plan as a great opportunity for Virginia to create “green” jobs in solar energy and energy-efficiency while also reducing carbon emissions and head off global warming. “I am working hard with Virginia businesses and environmental leaders to seize this moment to lead for our planet and for our economy,” he wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

That’s a fine sentiment. Virginia does need to create more jobs. And McAuliffe correctly perceives that the commonwealth faces momentous decisions regarding its electric system. But there was so much platitudinous thinking in the op-ed that I found it thoroughly discouraging. At the highest level of Virginia government, banalities have replaced substantive thought. Let’s take a look at some of the assaults on reason in the piece.

Job creation. Yes, if Virginia builds more solar plants, installs more solar panels on roofs, and builds more wind-powered turbines, it will create jobs related to the construction and operation of wind and solar power. However, the State Corporation Commission staff said last year that implementing the Clean Power Plan could drive electric rates 20% higher. Higher electric rates would discourage industrial development and take money out of the pockets of business and residential customers, all of which would result in job destruction. The difference is that the new energy jobs would be highly visible while the lost jobs, distributed in dribs and drabs across economy, would be largely invisible. Which effect would outweigh the other? Nobody knows, and anyone who pretends to is just making stuff up.

Environmentalists claim that, if implemented properly, the Clean Power Plan would nudge rates only a little higher, and ratepayers would save enough money through energy conservation that their bills actually would be a little lower than today. Perhaps that’s so. It certainly would be a much more desirable income than a 20% increase in electricity rates. So… let’s see the plan! What combination of programs and strategies will lead to this ideal outcome? How would the McAuliffe administration propose implementing the Clean Power Plan differently than the SCC would, while taking care to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, to avoid that 20% rate increase?

There was no hint in McAuliffe’s op-ed that such hard-nose thinking is even necessary. Chanting, “Rah, rah, green jobs,” is not a plan.

Norfolk flooding. If I hear one more invocation of rising sea levels and increased flooding in Norfolk as justification for spending billions of dollars overhauling Virginia’s energy infrastructure, I think my brain will explode. Here’s what the governor had to say on the subject:

Even before the hurricane headed toward Virginia’s coast, the city of Norfolk was bracing for a greater number of nuisance flooding days over the next year due to higher sea levels and more frequent storm surges. Because Norfolk houses the largest U.S. naval station in the world, this is also an issue of national security.

The Clean Power Plan is recognition of the need for action.

This logic is so woolly headed that if we could shave it, we could put the world’s sheep farmers out of business. The increasing incidence of flooding is a justification for building flood walls, hardening infrastructure, upgrading building codes, eliminating subsidies for flood insurance and reforming land use — not for restructuring Virginia’s electric grid.

The reality is that anything Virginia does to re-engineer its electric grid to reduce CO2 emissions will have an impact on global warming and rising sea levels too small to measure. According to estimates using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s MAGICC/SCENGEN climate model, the Clean Power Plan will reduce global temperatures about one-one hundredth of a degree (Centigrade) by the year 2100. Virginia’s implementation would account for roughly 1/40th that amount (based on its proportion of the U.S. GDP). To suggest that Virginia, by reducing global temperatures by 1/4,000th of a degree Centigrade, will slow the rate of rising sea levels enough to reduce the impact upon Norfolk is fantasy thinking.

As it happens, there is an argument for implementing the Clean Power Plan: By making the investment, the U.S. can thereby exercise the moral leadership to induce other countries, particularly China, India, to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. You can choose to accept that argument or not based upon your own partisan and ideological inclinations. But that’s not the argument that McAuliffe offers for supporting the plan.

The future grid. The Obama administration is imposing the Clean Power Plan upon America at a time when the electric power industry is in extraordinary flux, with new technologies and business models threatening to up-end the regulatory structure that has prevailed over the past 80 or so years. The pace of change, and the uncertainty it brings, is unprecedented during the era of regulated utilities. New technologies show enormous promise for replacing fossil fuels. At the same time, given the inherently intermittent nature of those power sources, there are many issues to work out for ensuring the reliability of the electric system, upon which our entire civilization is built. There is little room for error.

There are many profound questions to ponder. Should we invest in large nuclear- and gas-powered power plants with 40-year life spans when solar technology might produce electric power more cheaply within a 5- to 10-year time frame? Should we invest in the current generation of renewable fuels today when the next generation could well cost far less? In either case, we risk saddling Virginia’s electric power system with antiquated and uneconomic capacity. Do we want a big-is-better power system built around large power plants and a robust transmission system, or do we prefer a decentralized, small-is-beautiful approach that may not be as efficient but could be less vulnerable to catastrophic failure? What trade-offs are we willing to make between cost, reliability and the environment?

What path would McAuliffe urge us to take? We don’t know. The Governor offers no clue in his op-ed. Indeed, there are no simple answers to these questions. One way or the other, either we decide what future we want, or we will have a future thrust upon us.

A Sign of the Coming Grid Wars


It happened in Nevada first, but it could come to Virginia eventually — the effort by major electricity consumers to bypass their local utilities and purchase power from wholesale electric markets.

Three big casino companies — Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands — say they could slash millions of dollars from their electric bills if they could buy power directly from merchant power producers, reports the Wall Street Journal. Power-hungry casinos would like to use more renewable energy to live up to commitments to shareholders and customers but they say NV Energy, the monopoly utility, charges too much for green power. They could acquire the energy far cheaper by contracting directly with independent power producers.

NV Energy is doing everything it can to thwart the departure of some of its largest customers, and so far regulators have obliged. But as long as it’s possible to purchase solar power wholesale for 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (and conventional power  for 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour) and the company charges big commercial clients between 9 and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, big consumers will have enormous incentive to cut their own deals.

The WSJ didn’t explain the regulators’ thinking, but it should be obvious. The loss of major customers would throw the burden of supporting the vast sunk cost of the existing electric-generating infrastructure onto remaining customers, forcing the utility to raise rates in order to prop up profit margins. And Nevada needs a financially healthy power company to maintain a reliable source of electric power for those who don’t have the size and clout to cut their own deals with merchant power companies.

“The same struggle is occurring across the country,” writes the WSJ, “as large power users watch wholesale energy prices fall while their utility bills rise.” Some states allow residents and businesses to buy their electricity from competitive suppliers. While favoring the power companies, Virginia’s regulatory system does allow options.

Wrote the SCC in its 2015 report on Electric Utility Regulation in September:

The ability of most customers to purchase electric generation service from competing suppliers has been limited. The Regulation Act permits large customers (those exceeding 5 MW of electricity demand) to shop among licensed competitive service providers (“CSP”), and nonresidential customers may apply with the Commission to aggregate load up to the 5 MW threshhold to receive services from a CSP. Residential retail customers currently have the statutory right under the Regulation Act to purchase electric generation service from CSPs selling electric energy “provided 100% from renewable energy.”

The SCC lists 29 such CSPs licensed to sell 100% renewable energy in Virginia.

These retail aggregators can purchase green power from the PJM wholesale market, of which Virginia is a part, but they don’t appear to have made any meaningful inroads. Whether that’s due to a lack of consumer interest or an inability to deliver green energy at a competitive price, I don’t know.

As for big customers, Amazon Energy Services recently contracted with a merchant producer to generate solar electricity in the Eastern Shore for data centers in Northern Virginia. But Amazon is holding everyone to a non-disclosure agreement, so the terms of the detail are not generally known. Acbar, a frequent contributor to the Bacon’s Rebellion comments section, tells me that many of the documents outlining the terms of the deal are publicly available, but I have not had time to track them down. In any case, I have not risen to a level of competency to decipher the meaning of these hyper-technical documents, and I’m not sure, given all the other issues to write about, that it’s worth the effort.

But the electric power industry is changing fast, and my priorities could change with it.


In Defense of Teresa Sullivan

Jim Bacon defends Teresa Sullivan? What's next, earthshakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions?

Jim Bacon defends Teresa Sullivan. What’s next, earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions?

by James A. Bacon

Things have come to a strange pass when I find myself defending University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. In past posts, I have been highly critical of her performance. But, while I think there are legitimate grounds for criticizing her, some attacks just go too far. A recent case in point is an op-ed published by Del. David I. Ramadan, R-Loudoun, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In arguing that it’s time for Sullivan to “go” — presumably to resign — he lays upon her the full responsibility of every sin real and alleged that has been hurled against UVa in the two or three years, from the supposed “epidemic of rape” to ABC agents’ use of excessive force to subdue a black student who’d been drinking near the university grounds.

Perhaps there is rough justice at work here. Citing two documents — an American Association of Universities (AAU) “campus climate” survey and an Office of Civil Rights report on UVa’s response to sexual assaults — Ramadan paints a picture of UVa where one in four women say they they have been sexually assaulted during the past academic year and the university has acted insufficiently to eliminate the “hostile environment” toward women. That’s especially rich because Sullivan, through words and actions, contributed to that perception. In so doing, she helped perpetuate the atmosphere of hysteria that threatens to consume her. But blaming her for failing to address the supposed rape epidemic is manifestly unfair.

Ramadan wrote:

At the University of Virginia [the number of rape, assault or sexual misconduct] was 23.8 percent, with 13.4 percent of undergraduate women saying they had been assaulted during the past academic year alone. In plain English, it means that almost 2,000 daughters — daughters who wanted only a decent education — may have suffered unspeakably.

And also:

The disturbing report issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) tells a sickening story of gang rape and multiple accusation against the same accused perpetrators, says the university failed “to eliminate a hostile environment” and, worse still, didn’t act to protect the safety of the broader university community.

Let’s make something clear: The two documents Ramadan cites are highly politicized, created to advance the Obama administration’s “war on women” narrative. A sincere, well-meaning, liberal woman, Sullivan is collateral damage.

Let’s talk first about the AAU survey. The survey was conducted in a wave of orchestrated hype to advance the narrative that an “epidemic of rape” is sweeping through American universities. There is indeed an epidemic of sexual misbehavior, much of it revolving around the excessive use of drugs and alcohol, but the study methodology and conclusions were designed to create the impression that thousands of young women are being subjected to violent rape on campus. There is a problem with rape on campus — and any rape is too many — but the problem is not nearly as severe as portrayed.

The first thing you need to know about the survey is that it was based upon a response rate of 26.4% — one quarter of the student body.  The study never accounts for the possibility that the sample might have been biased by the fact that students (especially women) who had experienced sexual assault were far more likely to participate in order to make their voices felt, or that the highly vocal and well organized anti-rape movement on campus likewise might have spurred like-minded people to take part. I would argue that the highly emotional atmosphere of UVa in the wake of the Rolling Stone gang rape allegations skewed the participation rate. This is confirmed by the fact that the 26.4% response rate at UVa was significantly higher than the 19.3% average response rate for the other 27 institutions of higher education  included in the survey.

Now, let’s dig into the number of self-reported victims of sexual assault. Ramadan correctly quotes the AAU study as saying that 23.8 percent of female undergraduates reportedly experienced some kind of “sexual assault” since entering UVa. But that includes a wide range of offenses.


The percentage of undergraduate women who described themselves as victims of rape (forced to have sex by physical force or the threat of force) was only 3.0%. Of course, that’s way too many — the only permissible percentage is zero — but it’s a far, far cry from one in eight! The overwhelming majority of these “sexual assaults” constituted unwanted sex that occurred as a result of “incapacitation” — the parties were inebriated — or of unwanted groping. I condemn both, but they are a very different matter than violent rape.

Please note that these numbers refer to undergraduate women. The rate of such incidents for female graduate students is about one-third the rate for undergraduates. The percentage for married graduate females was even lower — pretty close to the incidence for society at large, I would wager. In other words, the epidemic of rape/regret sex/unwanted groping is overwhelmingly an undergraduate phenomenon, not a phenomenon afflicted female students randomly across campus. Why would that be? Could it have something to do with the culture of hook-ups and drunken sex that is much more prevalent among undergrads than graduate students? If that’s the case, it changes the complexion of the problem. Continue reading