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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Pipelines and Property Lines

Pipelines and Property Lines

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline wants to inspect land along a proposed 550-mile route. Legal challenges from landowners could re-write a 2004 law governing property rights in utility surveys.

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Salvaging Wind Power in Virginia

Salvaging Wind Power in Virginia

Dominion thinks $400 million is too much to pay for two experimental offshore wind turbines. The utility is exploring ways to drive the cost down.

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Cutting CO2 One Refrigerator at a Time

Cutting CO2 One Refrigerator at a Time

Energy efficiency is everybody's favorite strategy for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. But conservation programs are not always economical.

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The Solar Path Forward

Lighting_the_wayby James A. Bacon

Solar energy is economically competitive in many parts of the United States today, and it soon could become competitive in Virginia. The power source has a higher hurdle to overcome here than in many states — electric rates that are 13% lower than the national average, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. But relentless progress in the science of converting sunlight into energy suggests that solar will steadily erode the competitive advantage of other fuels, even in Virginia.

Over and above the fact that solar’s fuel source — the sun — is free, solar enjoys other economic advantages. Because residential and commercially generated solar electricity can be consumed in place, there is no need to invest in long-distance transmission lines, nor is there “line loss,” the leaking of electricity from electric lines. Solar panels also provide “peaking power” — they generate the most electricity in the afternoon when temperatures and electricity demand are the highest. And then there are the environmental advantages — solar power doesn’t pollute or emit CO2, the greenhouse gas implicated in global warming.

Solar power is so all-around awesome that Environment America Research & Policy Center has published a paper, “Lighting the Way: What we Can Learn from America’s Top 12 Solar States,” which makes the case that solar energy is good for consumers, the environment and the economy. The paper points to the 12 leading solar states for others to emulate. Arizona, the national leader, has installed solar capacity of 167 watts per capita. By comparison Virginia ranks 30th, with a mere 12 watts per capita.

Of course, Arizona is further south and has far fewer cloudy days, so one would expect solar to perform well there. But a less-than-ideal geographic location shouldn’t stop a state from installing solar, the paper says. North Carolina, which has lower overall electric rates than Virginia, averages 23 watts per capita, while Maryland averages 19.

“We have plenty of sunshine here in the state,” Lilias Gordon, campaign organizer with Environment Virginia, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We just have to make sure we are capitalizing on it with good clean-energy policy.”

According to the report, here is what states and localities can do to encourage the use of more solar:

  • Local governments should adopt policies guaranteeing homeowners and businesses the right to use or sell power from the sunlight that strikes their property (establishing net metering and overruling covenants in homeowner associations), enact solar-friendly zoning, and adopt bulk purchasing programs for solar installations.
  • State governments should use their regulatory powers to implement rate structures that maximize the benefits of solar energy to consumers and support a smart electric grid in which distributed sources of energy such as solar play a larger role.
  • All levels of government should install more solar energy in government buildings.

The biggest obstacle to large-scale adoption of solar is intermittent nature of the power source. Electric output of solar panels very directly with the strength of the sun. Clouds reduce solar generation, which compels an electric utility either to find power from another source or to curtail consumption. The study acknowledges the problem.

In states where large amounts of solar or wind power are going online, one emerging challenge for regulators is ensuring that [the] grid remains stable when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. In California, for example, where solar energy is growing quickly, the state’s major grid operator has warned that, by 2020, daily patterns of electricity consumption could change to result in the need for a rapid ramp-up in power generation each evening after the sun sets. … In order to keep the amount of power on the grid stable with increasing penetrations of solar energy, grid operators need efficient and flexible power resources that can mirror the variability of solar output.

California has taken steps to accelerate the adoption of battery storage technology. The idea is to capture excess solar production during the day, store it in batteries, and draw it down at night. Analysts are optimistic that battery storage costs will decline dramatically over the next five years. Who pays for that storage, and how much it will add to the cost of electric power use, is still hazy. Also, a reliance on solar/battery-driven electric system could collide with another environmental desiderata — the use of electric vehicles, which would recharge primarily at night.

Bacon’s bottom line: Solar is coming sooner or later, and Virginia needs to have a serious discussion on how to integrate it into the grid. “Lighting the Way” illuminates the wide array of policy options available to the state. But other than pointing to battery technology that may or may not materialize, it doesn’t seriously address the issue of grid stability.

From my semi-informed perspective (I know enough to be dangerous), we have to ask a fundamental question. Do we want to stick with our current model, which relies heavily upon large, centralized plants, including industrial-sized solar facilities, that shuttle excess power across a multi-state region over a centralized transmission grid? Or do we shift to a more flexible, distributed “smart” grid that incorporates a wider diversity of small-scale power sources. Put another way, do we go with a centralized, economies-of-scale model or a distributed, small-is-beautiful model?

We’re not having that conversation, and we need to.

Wind Power’s Big Problem: Erratic Output

Source: PJM Interconnection

Wind forecast and output across the PJM system on Sept. 3, 2015. Source: PJM Interconnection

The great thing about wind power is that the fuel is free. The bad thing about wind power is that you can’t count on getting it when you want it. Wind power may be an economically competitive source of electric power in parts of the country, like the plains states, where wind is strong and steady, but it’s not so competitive where its output is intermittent.

Yesterday afternoon, I captured this image from the PJM Interconnection website, which shows the fluctuations in wind generation compared to forecasts over 24 hours. (Both Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Co. are integrated in the PJM regional grid.) Here is the explanation that PJM provides:

Because wind is an intermittent resource, it requires its own forecasting and monitoring methods to plan for its reliability. This graphic chart displays both instantaneous power (in megawatts) being produced and forecasted power for every five minutes. It is updated hourly. The data is measured at each wind farm every minute and then is aggregated for this tool. Dispatchers use this display to monitor trends in wind power production.

The fact that PJM’s service territory spans parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia helps even out the power output. Local fluctuations sometimes cancel each other out. Even so, wind output varied from roughly 200 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts over the 24-hour period. In this particular day, wind turbines were cranking out the energy when it was needed least, during the night, and took a steep dive in the late morning when electricity demand was high and rising.

If wind power can’t be relied upon to produce electricity when needed, or at the very least on a predictable basis, the electric grid needs substantial backup capacity, maintained at great expense, to fill in the gaps. That’s why, over and above the local Not In My Back Yard resistance to wind farms, on-shore wind power doesn’t make much sense in Virginia. Even if Virginia wind power can crank out electricity competitively on a stand-alone basis, measured by the cost per kilowatt hour, basis, that’s not especially helpful to an integrated grid designed for system-wide reliability.

Solar energy is a very different story, as I will explain later today. Solar is intermittent as well, but it is intermittent within narrower parameters than wind. Solar plants generate zero electricity during the night, when electricity demand is lowest, and they reach maximum capacity during the afternoon, which coincides with peak electricity demand. My sense is that solar will play a much bigger role in Virginia’s energy future than wind.


(Hat tip: TomH)

Virginia Students Buck National SAT Decline

SATsIt turns out that the improved ACT college-readiness test scores I wrote about last week were not a fluke. Scores for the SAT, another college-readiness test, came in slightly improved for Virginia high school students this year, bucking a downward trend nationally.

Said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples in a press release today: “The performance of Virginia students on the SAT during the last five years provides additional evidence that the efforts of teachers and other educators to help students meet Virginia’s high expectations are producing real gains in learning and achievement.”

Also encouraging was that Virginians’ stronger-than-average performance extended to all racial/ethnic groups. Virginian Asians out-performed Asians nationally (except in math); likewise, whites, blacks and Hispanics consistently out-performed their racial/ethnic peers, as seen in this chart:


What’s remarkable about this chart is the degree to which Virginia Hispanics out-performed their national peers — by 122 point across all three tests. That compares to blacks who racked up 27 more points, whites with 22 points and Asians with 18 points. That is a huge difference. The difference cannot be attributed to the fact that Hispanics live disproportionately in Northern Virginia, which tends to have better schools. The same could be said of Asians. I’m guessing that Virginia Hispanics have a different socio-economic profile than Hispanics nationally.

The racial/ethnic divide remains as before: Asians are the top performers, followed by whites, Hispanics and blacks in that order.


Virginians Swear like Southerners, Gosh Darn It

Map credit: Strong Language

Map credit: Strong Language

In our never-ending quest to probe deeper into the political economy, sociology and cultural essence of Virginia than any other blog in the universe, we now turn our attention to an important cultural marker: curse words.

Posting in the Strong Language blog, Stan Carey has published maps showing the relative incidence in the use of 18 swear words based upon an 8.9-billion word corpus of geo-coded tweets. Some of the words represent the mildest form of profanity — “gosh” and “darn,” devised in the 19th century as substitutes for words considered profane. Other vulgarities refer to the human anatomy, bodily excretions and, of course, variations on the sex act.

Judging from the maps, Virginians belong to a sub-grouping that cuts a swath from Virginia to Texas, excluding Appalachia and the Florida peninsula. This grouping overlays the Bible Belt but is not synonymous with it. Appalachia has very different swearing patterns. In word after word, Virginians follow the same pattern as other Southerners. (Northern Virginia, which is culturally distinct from the rest of the state is an outlier for some words.)

Virginians east of the mountains are far more likely than other Americans to use the word “bitch” and far less likely to use the word “crap” in their tweets. We strongly favor the word “damn” but are lukewarm in the use of “darn.” We are partial to the words “pussy” and “shit” but far less inclined to describe someone as a “slut” or a “whore.”

One exception to the pattern: Virginians belong to a linguistic block that runs from Virginia north through Philadelphia, New York and Boston in their proclivity to use the word “fuckboy.” Clearly, I am getting old and out of touch because I don’t recall ever having heard the term, much less having ever used it.

And one interesting aside: Despite their cultural conservatism and relative lack of sympathy for gay rights, Southerners are far less likely to use the word “faggot” as a term of opprobrium. Virginia is a border state in that respect, with the religious Southside of the state less likely to use it and the tolerant, pluralistic Northern Virginia more likely to use it. I would hypothesize that the more taboo the “other F word” is, the greater its shock value and the more the reason to use it.

As attitudes evolve, so do the taboos surrounding certain words. The old Victorian-era vulgarities are losing their sting, but new taboos are emerging, such as the “N” word and other descriptors of race, ethnicity and personal identity. Slowly but steadily, PC values are replacing Victorian values.


(Hat tip: Larry Gross)

Mass Incarceration (Part I)

mass_incarcerationby Sarah Scarbrough

Are we using prison and jail too much? Do we put people behind bars with long sentences as a means to attempt to curb the crime rate? Many refer to this as mass incarceration.

First, though, let me first start by framing this and giving you a bit of context and background…

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – with over 2.2 million individuals behind bars today. This is about a 500 percent increase in the past 40 years. Further, even though the U.S. has only five percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. If those numbers were not alarming enough, there are another 4.75 million on some type of state supervision, such as probation or parole.

A disproportionate number of of people incarcerated are African-American males. Of the over two million incarcerated today, almost 40% are black men; one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars today. And, one-third of all black men will be incarcerated at some point of their life. Twenty percent of those incarcerated are Hispanic males.

While crime rates in the U.S. have consistently decreased for 24 years, the number of incarcerated people has continued to rise over the majority of that period. This is attributed to both more people being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and longer sentences. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has gradually decreased over the past two decades, the number of offenders serving life sentences has progressively risen. Today, one in nine prisoners are serving a life sentence.

So, the question is, why the unprecedented rise over the decades? The situation: mass incarceration. There are a few different factors associated with this – and it is not just non-violent drug offenders who are associated with mass incarceration, as many often say. There is much more to it.

Starting in the 1970’s, we began sending people convicted of rather minor crimes to prison for longer periods of time – this is where it all started.

Next, the war on drugs began, sending more and more to prison for longer periods of time.

Then, in the early to mid-90’s, we saw sentence increases for a wide variety of crimes, including life sentences and life without parole.

Establishing these efforts was packaged and sold as “getting tough on crime.” The fact that mass incarceration contributed to a social restructuring was not discussed at the time. Folks who suffered from mental health issues and survivors of trauma and abuse were just rounded up and sent into the system where they now eat up a tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars. Continue reading

Pell Grants: Soaking Taxpayers and Creating Debt Slaves?

pell_loansby James A. Bacon

Earlier this month the Hechinger Report found that a large percentage of the beneficiaries of federal Pell grants to students from low-income families never graduate. The study also found that the federal government, despite spending $300 billion on the program since 2000, doesn’t keep track. The feds have doubled their commitment to the program since the 2007-2008 school year with absolutely no idea of what results they are getting.

Uncle Sam may be flying blind, but Virginia is not. The Commonwealth has been collecting the data for years and reports the results for every public and private university in the state, reports the VLDS (Virginia Longitudinal Data System newsletter. According to Tod Massa with the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia, “Virginia knows more about the success of students in all the Title IV financial aid programs, which are not ours, than the federal government does.”

Pell grants for low-income students provide awards of up to $5,775 per student. Graduation rates for Pell recipients in Virginia can be seen here.

For all first-time, full-time college students entering a Virginia institution in the 2001 school year, 60.3% graduated within five years compared to 43.4% for Pell recipients. The graduation rate varied widely between institutions, however. The more elite the institution, the higher the graduation rate. For instance the Pell graduation rate within five years at the University of Virginia was 85% for freshmen enrolled in 2001, while it was 20% at Norfolk State University. (View data for individual institutions here.)

The disparity in graduation rates raises the question of whether the program is inducing poor students to attend college when they have no business doing so, either because they are unprepared for college-level work or because they struggle to pay the tuition, fees, room and board. A nearly $6,000 grant covers about a third or fourth of what it costs to attend a public university in Virginia. It would be interesting to know how many Pell recipients end up taking out student loans. It would be even more interesting to know how many Pell recipients end up saddled with student debt without the degree credential that would help them pay it off.

Virginia has the data to undertake such an analysis. The fact that the U.S. Department of Education does not is just disgraceful. It’s not often that a government wealth-distribution scheme can both squander your tax dollars and propel thousands  of would-be beneficiaries into debt slavery.


Energy’s Innovation Race

Rendering of a GE combined-cycle natural gas-burning plant.

Rendering of a GE combined-cycle natural gas-burning plant.

Foes of fossil fuels are wondering if natural gas production in the United States is peaking. While some observers depict the supply  of natural gas as lasting decades, maybe a hundred years, others see signs that gas wells in the Marcellus shale formation are playing out more rapidly than anticipated. As supply becomes constricted, prices will rise, punishing electricity consumers who in Virginia will relying increasingly upon natural gas for electric generation. To protect against inevitably rising gas prices, the argument goes, states should mandate the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones making the argument that gas production in the Marcellus formation has peaked. Oil and Gas Investments Bulletin Publisher Keith Schaeffer, among others, makes the same case.

But that sentiment is far from universal. “The U.S. may have far more natural gas than anyone imagined, all reachable at a profit even with today’s bargain-basement prices,” states the lead of a Wall Street Journal article today. The article quotes Mark Papa, a partner of Riverstone Holdings LLC, an energy-oriented private equity investor, as saying, “There’s a large likelihood that the United States will be enjoying very low gas prices for a very long time, maybe 20 years.”

Fossil fuel producers are showing remarkable resilience in the face of incredibly low fuel prices. They are embracing new technology, pioneering new drilling methods and figuring out how to slash production costs. Meanwhile, designers of power plants that burn natural gas are developing combustion systems that can extract 50% more energy from a BTU of gas than the previous generation. Traditional gas turbines convert 32% to 38% of the heat content from gas into electricity. The latest gas turbines incorporating advances in materials and aerodynamics and running in combined cycle mode can operate at 60% efficiency under optimal conditions.

The competition between different types of energy source is good news for consumers. The price of solar power and wind power continue to drop as R&D efforts yield technology breakthroughs, as supply chains mature, and as the solar and wind industries move up the learning curve. If the gas production/ generation industry had remained static, solar and wind might well be broadly competitive today. But the gas industry continues to innovate as well. Wind and solar (and coal, too) are chasing a moving target.

There is something to be said for hedging Virginia’s bets by encouraging the diversification of energy sources used in generating electric power, as there is for investing in energy efficiency, another field rife with innovation. But there’s also something to be said for committing to the lowest cost energy source, especially if, like natural gas, it is clean burning and emits significantly less CO2 than coal. Rather than approach energy policy with preconceived ideas that one energy strategy or the other is “the best,” Virginia should aim for an energy strategy that is flexible, adaptable and capable of exploiting opportunities created by an innovative energy economy.


Amherst Ordinance Violates Basic Human Right

ex-conby James A. Bacon

I have little sympathy for criminals. I don’t buy into the Officer Krupke school of thought that people “are depraved on account of they’re deprived.” And I’m all in favor in getting tough on crime. But I also believe that once a criminal has served his sentence , government policy should be geared to making it easier, not harder, for him to find a job and reintegrate into society.

Employers are understandably reluctant to hire ex-cons for certain types of jobs, with the consequence that many employment opportunities in government, health care, education and finance are off limits. For some felons, the only employment opportunity is creating one’s own job.

But now comes Amherst  County, enacting an ordinance in May, that allows the Commissioner of Revenue to “withdraw the privilege of doing business or exercising a trade, profession, occupation, vocation, calling or activity by revoking a business license” for anyone convicted of a felony or crime of moral turpitude.

As Eugene Volokh, a California law school professor observes, “This isn’t limited to particular job categories and particular criminal histories (e.g., barring people with child sex abuse records from working in day care centers, barring people with recent DUIs from driving trucks, and so on). If the Commissioner wishes, anyone with the specified kind of conviction could essentially be disqualified from pretty much any job in the County.”

“This sort of discretionary control over people’s lives is not how a free country should work,” writes Volokh.

I agree whole-heartedly. Indeed, I would go further. The idea expressed in the Amherst County ordinance that the right to self-employment is a “privilege” revocable by government is reprehensible in a free society. The ability to freely sell one’s labor and/or skills in the marketplace is, or should be, a foundational human right. I can’t imagine what the Amherst board supervisors were thinking when they enacted this ordinance, but they need to repeal it immediately. And if they don’t, some one needs to file a legal challenge. This is an embarrassment.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

Virginia’s Maritime Future Is Now

The Northern Javelin, one of the new-generation container ships visiting the ports of Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

The Northern Javelin, one of the new-generation container ships visiting the ports of Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s maritime industry has long anticipated the arrival of the new giant, post-Panamax ships, and now they’re here — a couple of years before they were anticipated, and well before the completion of the Panama Canal expansion that is expected to release the floodgates. As the East Coast port with the deepest channels, Hampton Roads is attracting more than its share. The leviathans pose special logistical problems but the maritime industry is working through them. Virginia Business has the story here.

As author Jessica Sabbath writes, the world’s largest ships can carry twice the number of containers that the big ships of 10 years ago could. These bad boys represent almost 60% of the shipping world’s total cargo capacity. Any port with growth ambitions will have to accommodate them.

The Ports of Virginia planned for the arrival of the big ships by digging 50-foot channels, the deepest on the East Coast, and erecting modern cranes that can reach across the wide-girthed vessels. But by virtue of their enormous size, the post-Panamax ships require more precision in their handling and scheduling. If Virginia’s ports can climb the learning curve faster than other ports, they can create an important competitive advantage even as rivals seek to deepen their own shipping channels.

The big ships must move more slowly to avoid damaging wake. They require especially high-powered tugboats to maneuver in tight quarters. Because the big ships take longer to unload, longshoremen work longer shifts. Even with longer shifts, the maritime industry has added more than 200 longshoremen to handle the increased cargo volume — which increased 8.8 percent to a record 2.5 million TEUs (equivalent to 5 million containers) in Fiscal Year 2015.

The movement of these giants through the ports and their containers through the supply chain creates issues of vessel bunching and equipment imbalance. Shippers often scramble to find available motor carriers. When bunching occurs — it can take more than 24 hours to transfer a container from the ship to a Norfolk Southern railroad train — shippers and motor carriers experience larger demurrage fees. These are the kinds of problems would expect anywhere in similar circumstances, and they take time to sort out. If the maritime community does so successfully, Hampton Roads could well enjoy years of growth and job creation.

Interestingly, one issue that Sabbath did not mention: roads. The McDonnell administration had feared that clogged roads would make it more difficult to ship containers out of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Adding capacity to the Midtown and Downtown tunnels should alleviate localized congestion. But plans for upgrading the U.S. 460 highway connection between Suffolk and Petersburg were sharply curtailed after a funding debacle. Norfolk Southern is accommodating some of the surge in freight traffic with its double-stacked trains destined for Midwest markets. Judging by the article’s silence on the subject, highway congestion has not yet emerged as a bottleneck for the maritime industry’s growth. But if freight traffic continues growing at last year’s pace, congestion could become an issue.

Tough on Bad Drivers

wrecked_carThe latest from WalletHub… Virginia is the third strictest state in the country when dealing with high-risk drivers. The Old Dominion is consistently among the tougher states for Driving Under the Influence penalties and prevention, speeding enforcement and reckless driving enforcement.

For what it’s worth: Red states are slightly tougher on at-risk drivers than blue states.