Category Archives: Economic development

A Plethora of Pipelines

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

by James A. Bacon

How many natural gas pipelines does Virginia need? A lot of people are asking that question as two projects — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline — are actively developing routes between the Marcellus shale gas fields to the northwest and fast-growing markets to the south. Meanwhile, the Williams Companies, owner of the giant Transco pipeline, is talking up the Appalachian Connector, and Columbia Gas Transmission says it might upgrade an existing pipeline terminating in Northern Virginia.

All told, the four projects would add a capacity of 6.8 billion cubic feet per day, or roughly 200 billion cubic feet monthly. While much, if not most, of that gas would be destined for markets outside Virginia, that’s still a tremendous amount of capacity. By way of comparison, existing pipelines deliver to Virginia between 20 billion and 60 billion billion cubic feet monthly, depending on the time of year.

The question of how much is too much has become an urgent one as landowners in the path of the proposed pipelines resist survey crews from entering their property and vow to resist acquisition of their land by eminent domain. To acquire right of way using eminent domain, they say, companies must articulate a compelling public need to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). While there may be a need for some new pipeline capacity, they contend, it’s hard to justify all four projects.

“We’ve got a big infrastructure build-out proposed,” says Greg Buppert, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), who is tracking the issue. “My suspicion is that some but not all of this capacity is needed. There is even a possibility that existing infrastructure can meet the need.”

But some say the market is self-limiting. Pipeline companies won’t spend billions of dollars adding new capacity unless they get enough long-term contracts to ensure they can pay for a project. If there is insufficient demand to support all four pipeline projects, all four pipelines will not get built.

For decades, Virginia has relied mainly upon two companies, the Williams Companies and Columbia Gas, to deliver gas to the state. Williams operates the high-capacity Transco pipeline — energy journalist Housley Carr refers to it as “the gas-transportation equivalent of an eight-lane highway”– connecting the Gulf of Mexico gas fields with New York by way of Virginia and other Atlantic Coast states. Columbia Gas runs a parallel pipeline highway west of the Appalachias, which serves a multi-state distribution system that feeds into Virginia via West Virginia.

Traditionally, most gas from both pipelines has come from the Gulf of Mexico. But fracking has turned North American energy economics topsy turvy. Gas fields tapping the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and Ohio are reputed to contain as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia. Marcellus gas is abundant and cheap, and gas pipeline companies have been scrambling to develop new markets, mostly in the U.S., but also for foreign markets by means of Liquefied Natural Gas.

The explosion in supply coincides with a surge in demand, especially from electric power companies. In two major waves of regulation in recent years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated power companies to reduce their toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants and then, with final rules issued early August, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 32% nationally. In both cases, utilities are shifting en masse from coal to natural gas. While renewable sources such as solar and wind power are expected to gain electricity market share, industry officials say they must be backed up by gas generators to take up the slack when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, so demand growth for renewables actually supports demand growth for natural gas. Meanwhile, gas companies foresee a kick in long-term demand from a growing population and economy, especially among manufacturing operations seeking to tap some of the world’s lowest cost energy and chemical feedstock.

“Virginia is in need of new natural gas transmission that can get these new reserves to the parts of Virginia that need it the most,” says Christina Nuckols, deputy communications director for Governor Terry McAuliffe. “Hampton Roads is considered an energy cul-de-sac where natural gas capacity constraint has been an issue for years.  Particular counties in central and southern Virginia also have reported on numerous occasions that they lose out on manufacturing-related economic development opportunities almost immediately because they cannot provide access to natural gas.

“With any new market opportunity, there are going to be a number of companies looking to find success,” she says. “All of these proposed pipeline projects are recognition that Virginia is in need of additional natural gas capacity and the infrastructure to provide it.  It remains to be seen which projects will get approval from the appropriate entities.”

Here are the major projects proposed for Virginia: Continue reading

Virginia’s Spaceport: a Century-Long Commitment

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has settled a dispute with Orbital Science Corp. over insurance of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island. Orbital, which is in the business of launching payload into orbit, will reimburse the state for one-third of the $15 million in damages incurred by the spaceport when Orbital’s rocket exploded during lift-off in October, and it will cover the cost of insuring future launches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Reaching a settlement is critical to the future of the spaceport, to Orbital and to Virginia’s long-term economic future. The Fairfax County-based company is Virginia’s local space champion in a business where high-flying entrepreneurs from California, Texas and Florida predominate. In 2012, when the commonwealth published a strategic plan for the spaceport, Orbital was one of the top ten  largest U.S. space system and launch vehicle manufacturers, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

This may sound excessively Buck Rogers, but I regard the spaceport as critical infrastructure for Virginia’s long-term future. One day, the launch facility could well be the nucleus of a massive space-based industrial complex and seen as vital to the state economy as Virginia’s rail or highway system. At least it will if we can nurture it through the embryonic phase of the space industry in the face of stiff competition — MARS was only one of eight FAA-licensed commercial space launch facilities in the country in 2012.

Building a world-class space industry in Virginia will take patience.  The forecast for commercial space launches, though steady, is not exactly booming in the near term:


2012 FAA forecast for all global commercial space transportation launches, 2012 to 2021.

Right now the market is dominated by NASA and the mission of providing logistical support to the International Space Station. But space-based activity is growing. The strategic report notes the need for:

  • Fixed satellite services: high definition television, Internet connectivity and very small aperture terminal satellites (which serve homes and businesses).
  • Direct broadcasting services
  • Broadband services
  • Hosted payloads: experimental payloads, technology demonstrations, scientific missions, remote sensing, weather and climate monitoring and national security.

An important emerging market is space tourism. Longer run, we can expect to see more defense-related applications, not just satellites but weapons systems. Futurist George Friedman envisions “battle stars” in geosynchronous orbit armed with hyper-missiles to rain down  upon our enemies. The potential exists for specialized manufacturing processes using the unique properties of space such as microgravity and perfect vacuum, as well as vast solar arrays that microbeam energy to earth. A step beyond would involve mining the Moon for He-3 isotope in the lunar regolith, a likely fuel for fusion power. All of these activities will require a supporting space-based (or Moon-based) infrastructure for support. Looking even further out, it is not far-fetched to imagine commercial and religious colonies establishing themselves on the Moon to emancipate themselves from oppressive earth-bound political systems, much as 17th-century colonists sought refuge in the New World.

Earth-based spaceports will emerge as critical entrepots for all of this activity. Those that establish themselves early will enjoy a major competitive advantage by attracting corporate investment, evolving business ecosystems and building economies of scale for supporting infrastructure.

It may take another century for the full potential to emerge. But our children’s children will thank us for staying the course.

Hail to the Pickpockets!

The Artful Dodger

The Artful Dodger

by James A. Bacon

Hey, if the Washington Redskins ever yield to the forces of political correctness and change their team name, I’ve got a new suggestion — the Washington Pickpockets. The symbolism is perfect. Not only does the Redskin franchise play for a city where Congress has perfected the skill of fleecing the taxpayer, the Skins rival Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger in their ability to relieve fans and taxpayers alike of their money.

Three years ago, the McDonnell administration and Loudoun County forked over $6 million in state and local funds to keep the headquarters of the Redskins organization in Virginia. Then the City of Richmond agreed to build a $10 million training facility and pay $500,000 a year over eight years if only the team would move its training practice to Richmond. Even at the time, the training-camp deal generated more razzing than Robert Griffin III on a bad day. Three seasons later, it turns out that the jeers for the deal (the jury’s still out regarding RGIII) were roundly deserved.

The first year of training camp was a modest success, creating a $10.5 million economic impact to the Richmond region. A daily average of 10,800 people attended the practices that year. The number over the same span last year fell to 7,500, and then to 4,500 this year.  As the Richmond Times-Dispatch wryly observed, the Richmond Squirrels AA-league baseball club has been drawing larger crowds.

Declining attendance means declining spending. Vendors have abandoned a city-sponsored food truck court. City revenue from the event is falling short, which means  the city has to dig deeper to meet its $500,000-a-year payment.

Bacon’s bottom line: Sports & entertainment promotion is not a core competency of state and local government. The City of Richmond has no business cutting deals with the likes of the Redskins. By contrast, education is a core competency (or core incompetency, depending on your perspective). Rather than spending funds on entertainment venues, Richmond should be using the money to address a maintenance/renovation backlog that, by one estimate, amounts to $620 million.

As for the Redskins, this is one quasi-fan who’s had enough. Let ’em go back to Loudoun, or Washington, D.C. for that matter. I won’t miss them one bit.

Easy Come, Easy Leave


Image credit: Atlas Van Lines

Virginia has not been one of the nation’s fastest growing states but it has consistently enjoyed a healthy net in-migration from other states. In other words, for years more people have moved into Virginia than moved out.

That likely changed in 2014. According to Atlas Van Lines moving records based on nearly 77,000 interstate and cross-border household relocations, more households moved out of Virginia — 66 to be precise — than moved in last year. Now, that’s just Atlas Van Line customers, not everyone. Atlas’ sample size is so small compared to total migration and the margin of out-migration is so tiny, that it’s conceivable that Virginia actually gained population through in-migration. Of course, it’s also possible the Atlas sample was biased the other way and that the Old Dominion lost more than indicated by the numbers.

What really matters is the trend. I’ve reformatted the numbers from the table above: inmigration_trend

Declining movement between states is a national trend, usually attributed to people being locked in by the prices of their houses. Still, there are two obvious inflection points in the Virginia numbers: between 2009 and 2010, outbound migration took a jump up, and between 2011 and 2012, in-migration took a nose dive. The latter can be attributed to sequestration and federal cuts. I have no ready explanation for the former. Any ideas?


Hospital Rankings and Economic Development

VCU Medical Center complex in downtown Richmond, a driver of the regional economy.

VCU Medical Center complex in downtown Richmond.

by James A. Bacon

U.S. News & World-Report has issued its 2015-2016 ranking of the nation’s “best hospitals,” and Virginia has four hospitals with at least one adult specialty receiving a “national” ranking. The online publishing company bills the ranking as a tool to help patients select hospitals that can best treat complex illnesses. But it also prompts questions about the role of hospitals as agents of economic development.

Hospitals are major employers and generators of economic activity in every community they serve. While some hospitals cater to local markets exclusively, some have such a reputation for excellence in certain specialty practices, from cancer to heart disease, that they draw patients from around the state, the nation or even the world. To the extent that a hospital draws patients from elsewhere, it can be said to be “exporting” services and making a contribution to local jobs and economic activity.

Thus, Massachusetts General, rated the best hospital this year, excels in everyone of the 16 specialties covered by U.S. News & World-Report and three pediatric specialties. The hospital employs 2,889 doctors, many of whom are highly compensated specialists, not to mention a host of nurses, technicians, administrators and others. Its reputation as one of the best research hospitals in the world brings in “thousands” of international patients — so many that the hospital maintains a dedicated “international patient center.” No wonder that Mass General is an anchor of the Boston regional economy.

Accepting the proposition that hospitals can be big contributors to regional economies over and above their contribution to public health, how do Virginia’s hospitals shake up? Here’s the score:

Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center
National ranking in 3 adult specialties, one pediatric specialty
Doctors: 454

Sentara Norfolk General
National ranking in 2 adult specialties
Doctors: 694

Inova Fairfax
National ranking in 1 adult specialty, two pediatric specialties
Doctors: 1,689

University of Virginia Medical Center
National ranking in 1 adult specialty, 4 pediatric specialties
Doctors: 609


Sentara Norfolk General Hospital

How significant are those rankings? That’s hard to say. There are nearly 5,000 hospitals across the United States. U.S. News & World-Report uses a methodology that combines metrics such as hospital volume and risk-adjusted survival rates for complex cases and supplements them with a physician survey of hospital reputations. To be awarded a “national” ranking, a hospital must score within the top 50. In other words, that puts VCU in the top 1% for three adult specialties and one pediatric specialty. The publication does not publish the numbers behind the scores, so there is no way to tell if VCU’s specialties rank No. 1 in the country or No. 50.

U.S. News and World-Report focuses on 16 adult specialties. With 50 hospitals recognized for each specialty, a total of 800 total hospital specialties are recognized. Only seven of those are located in Virginia. To put that in perspective, Virginia has 2.6% of the nation’s population, 3.3% of its GDP but only 0.9% of its nationally ranked hospital specialties.

These are very rough numbers that are undoubtedly subject to criticism. But they suggest to me that Virginia’s hospitals are an under-performing economic sector. If hospitals achieved a level of excellence commensurate with Virginia’s population and GDP, there would be far more centers of excellence in the state, along with more highly compensated doctors, nurses and technicians employed.

That’s not meant to be a put-down of Virginia’s hospitals. The ability to expertly handle highly complex medical cases does not tell us much about the ability to handle routine cases. It doesn’t tell us how much the hospitals charge for their services or whether they’re providing value for the dollar. It doesn’t mean that Virginia hospitals aren’t serving their community. What the numbers mean is that Virginia is missing out on an economic development opportunity to provide services outside the community.

What U.S. News & World-Report does not tell us, and I don’t know, is what it takes to become a national-class hospital. I suspect that it takes a long time to build a top oncology or heart program, so longevity is probably a requirement. It also helps to live in a community that can afford to pay the high salaries of top medical talent. And it probably helps to have wealthy philanthropists willing to endow new buildings, medical school professorships and R&D. Undoubtedly, there are other factors of which I am unaware. I think it would be interesting to know what the key drivers are, and whether building institutions known for their medical excellence is something that communities can influence through government policy and/or philanthropic endeavors.

Virginians still think of economic development either as big game hunting for corporate investments or venture capital-driven business creation. But economic development comes in many forms, and hospitals are one. It strikes me that this is an area that warrants more attention here in the Old Dominion.

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Pipelines and Property Lines

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

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.

by James A. Bacon

Charlotte Rea decided when she retired that she wanted to live near where she grew up near Charlottesville. She found “a little piece of heaven” in Nelson County: a 29-acre spread on the north fork of the Rockfish River. With her retirement savings, she purchased the land with the idea of keeping it undeveloped if things worked out but selling two lots if she needed the cash. “All of my money is in the land,” Rea says. “It’s my long-term care insurance.”

She never imagined that someone would want her land for industrial purposes. But her homestead, as it turns out, came to be situated on the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) linking the natural gas fields of West Virginia with markets in Virginia and North Carolina. The 125-foot pipeline right-of-way would cut a swath across the river and through forested wetlands on her property that host a species of rare orchid. An ag-forestal district designation restricts development and prohibits industrial uses, she says. “Except it appears Dominion can industrialize it by running a pipeline through it. My property  will become an underground natural gas storage site.”

Since announcing its original plans, ACP has redrawn its proposed route, leaving her property untouched. But Rea doesn’t consider the new route to be definitive, and she is little reassured. “My future is totally blown up, not knowing what’s happening to my property. No one wants to buy land with a natural gas pipeline going through the middle of the view shed. I stand to lose $50,000 in property value. I couldn’t sleep at night worrying about the darn thing coming through.” 

The 63-year-old career Air Force veteran decided to fight back, signing up as co-chair of the “All Pain No Gain” group opposing the pipeline. Not only does Rea not want to see the pipeline built, she objects to ACP or its contractors even coming onto private property to survey the land. And she is just one of dozens of landowners who view the pipeline the same way.

Dominion Transmission, ACP’s managing partner, filed suit this spring in local courts against more than 100 property in order to gain access to their land. Many, like Rea, were clustered near the Blue Ridge mountains in Augusta and Nelson Counties. A local judge ruled that the notice letters had been improperly issued by Dominion Transmission, so the pipeline company withdrew the pending cases and started re-filing lawsuits as ACP. As of early July, says Rea, she knew of 27 re-filed lawsuits. Meanwhile, pipeline foes have filed two of their own lawsuits in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the state law.

The lawsuits are shaping up as the Old Dominon’s biggest battle over property rights in years. The courts will be called upon to define the balance between landowners like Rea who wish to be left alone and utilities like the four corporate partners of the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline — including Virginia energy giant Dominion, Duke Energy, AGL Resources and Piedmont Natural Gas — who argue that there is a compelling public need to build more gas pipelines as electric utilities replace coal with gas in their fuel mix. The legal outcome could influence other pipeline projects as well. Three groups besides ACP have expressed possible interest in building pipelines from the West Virginia shale fields to markets in Virginia and points south.

Pipeline foes make two overarching arguments. First, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has not yet issued a certificate declaring the ACP project to be in the public interest, says Joe Lovett, an attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Because ACP cannot yet argue that the pipeline is for “public use,” it has no right to survey land without the consent of property owners.

Second, pipeline foes say, landowners deserve compensation for survey crews tramping over their property. The right to exclude others from entering your property “is one of the most important rights in the bundle of property rights,” says Josh Baker, an attorney with Waldo & Lyle, one of the preeminent landowner rights firms in Virginia. When multiple survey teams — ACP lists five different categories of crews — enter the property, they can cause considerable inconvenience. While the Virginia code allows for “actual damages” resulting from a survey, it allows nothing for inconvenience.

Dominion asserts that it is fully within its rights to conduct the surveys as long as it complies with requirements to request permission in writing to inspect the land and then provide a notice of intent to enter. Obtaining a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC is necessary to acquire land through eminent domain authority but not to survey land, says Jim Norvelle, director media relations for Dominion Energy. Surveys are governed by state law.

As for land surveys constituting a “taking,” there is plenty of legal precedent to support ACP’s position, Norvelle says. “We do not expect to damage anyone’s property when surveying. In the unlikely event there is some damage, we will reimburse the landowner.”

A half century ago, pipelines in Virginia were either intrastate pipelines under State Corporation Commission jurisdiction or they were segments of interstate pipelines built and “stitched together over time,” says Jim Kibler, who was active in eminent domain litigation in Virginia before joining Atlanta-based AGL Resources as senior vice president-external affairs. Local public utility commissions, including Virginia’s SCC, provided most regulatory oversight. Continue reading

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.

The Ironies of Virginia’s Growing Diversity

Midlothian’s New Grand Mart taps state’s growing diversity

 By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly immigration is popping up as a major issue in Virginia and the nation.

Virginia Beach has been dubbed a “sanctuary city” for undocumented aliens by Fox News and conservative Websites. GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is scarfing up poll number hikes by calling Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally “rapists” and proposing an expensive new wall project to block off the southern border. Pro-Confederate flag advocates are pushing back against anti-flag moves, but they can’t escape the reality they are conjuring up  old visions of white supremacy, not their version of respectable Southern “heritage.”

So, if you’d like to look at it, here’s a piece I wrote for The Washington Post in today’s newspaper. When I visited a new, international food store called New Grand Mart in Midlothian near Richmond, I was impressed by how large it was and how many people from diverse backgrounds were there.

Looking further, I found one study noting that Virginia is drawing new groups of higher-income residents of Asian and Hispanic descent. In the suburbs, African-Americans are doing well, too.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism ranked 52 cities as offering the best opportunities for diverse groups. One might assume D.C. and Northern Virginia would rank well, and they do. More surprising was that Richmond and Virginia Beach rank in the top 10 in such areas as income and home ownership. True, mostly black inner city Richmond has a 26 percent poverty rate but it seems to be a different story elsewhere.

Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says that economic prosperity and jobs that had been concentrated in the D.C. area, much of it federal, has been spread elsewhere throughout the state. It may not be a coincidence that New Grand Mart was started in Northern Virginia by Korean-Americans who undertook research. It revealed that the Richmond area was a rich diversity market waiting to be tapped. They were impressed and expanded there.

Other areas that do well in the study are Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C. and ones in Texas, which show a trend of job creation in the South and Southwest outpacing economic centers in the Northeast, Midwest and in parts of the West. Another story in today’s Post shows that there are more mostly-black classrooms in Northern cities than in the South. The piece balances out the intense reevaluation of Southern history now underway. A lot of the bad stuff seems to have ended long ago, but somehow similar attitudes remain in cities like Detroit and New York.

This progress is indeed interesting since old-fashioned American xenophobia is rearing itself again.

In Virginia, the long-term political impact will be profound as newer groups prosper. They may not be as inclined as whites to embrace Virginia’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism, such as their emotional mythology of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Their interest in them might be more dispassionately historical.

And, as the numbers of wealthier people from diverse backgrounds grow, they may be less willing to keep their heads down when faced with immigrant bashing. That’s what people of Hispanic descent did in 2007 and 2008 when Prince Williams County went through an ugly phase of crackdowns on supposed illegals. They could strike back with their own political campaigns.

Whether they will be blue or red remains to be seen. It’s not a given that they’d be Democratic-leaning. Farnsworth notes, however, that as more diverse people move to metropolitan suburbs, whites in more rural, lower-income places may become more reactionary out of fear. Hard-working and better-educated newcomers might be out-classing them in job hunts, so they might vote for politicians warning of a yellow or brown peril.

In any case, New Grand Mart presages a very crucial and positive trend in Virginia. It shows the irony of the hard right echo chamber peddling stories designed to inflame hatred and racism, such as the one about Virginia Beach being a “sanctuary” for illegals. In fact, the city is attracting exactly the  well-educated and hard-working newcomers of diverse backgrounds upon whom it can rest its future.

But we’re in an age of bloated billionaires with helmet hairdos and no military experience claiming that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a shot-down Navy pilot who spent five years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison, is not a hero. If Virginia can ignore such time-wasters and embrace diversity, it will be a better place.

Why Can’t Dominion Do Big Wind Projects?

A wind farm in Texas

A wind farm in Texas

 By Peter Galuszka

Down in the swamplands and farmlands of northeastern North Carolina, construction has begun on a huge new wind farm that will be the largest so far in the southeastern U.S.

Iberdrola Renewables LLC, a Spanish firm, has begun construction on the long-awaited $600 million project with financial help from Amazon, which also plans a solar farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The Tar Heel project will stretch on 22,000 acres and could generate about 204 megawatts of power.

The curious part of this is that the farm is only about 12 miles of the Virginia line northwest of Elizabeth City, N.C.

That’s not far at all from the Old Dominion. But Dominion Resources, Virginia’s leading utility, has been sluggish in pushing ahead with wind, citing concerns about cost. It pulled the plug on an offshore pilot project involving only two wind turbines that would have a relatively tiny power output off of Virginia Beach.

So why were renewable energy firm executives and public officials celebrating yesterday in North Carolina and not Virginia?

That’s an easy one. North Carolina has a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewables. Virginia has a similar plan, but being a “pro-business” state, Virginia has made it voluntary. So, Dominion doesn’t really have to do anything at the moment to push to wind, solar or other renewable.

It might have more incentive to do so when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizes rules on its Clean Power Plan later this year, but no one really knows what the final form will be.

Nonetheless, Dominion has marshaled its money and its lobbyists to change how regulators over see it in this regard. The General Assembly, some of whose members get huge contributions from Dominion, hurriedly passed a bill this session changing the rules in ways that Dominion wants.

To be sure, Dominion has some wind farms in other states. But here in Virginia, it is pitching the old saw that wind power is too expensive and unreliable and so on.

It may have been at one time. When Iberdrola pitched the plan to put 102 wind turbines on 22,000 acres in N .C., the common wisdom was that the southeast just doesn’t have the natural wind power. The winds are too light, usually.

But this changed when new technology allowed wind turbines to go from about 260 feet into the air to more than 460 feet or almost as much as the Washington Monument. Once that happened, the Carolina wind farm became a go. Of course, critics say that wind turbines have negatives such as their capacity to slice apart birds and be an eyesore.

What’s better for humanity, however? Coal or even natural gas plants or ones that have no pollution, especially carbon, footprint?

Another interesting aspect of this story is how Amazon is getting involved. The retailing giant is becoming an electric renewable utility in its own right. It wants to have renewable power run the massive servers that it relies upon to do business. But instead of screwing around with hidebound, traditional utilities like Dominion that are often reluctant to warmly embrace renewable energy, Amazon is doing it itself.

Amazon is also putting in a 170 megawatt solar farm in Virginia’s Accomack County which has terrain similar that of Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties in North Carolina that will host the wind farm.

To be fair to Dominion, the utility has a legal responsibility to supply its customers with electricity on a 24/7 basis. It needs a diverse energy mix to be able to do that.

But one wonders why Dominion keeps pushing this bugaboo about wind. Its sister utilities have raised the same cry. That could be why wind represents only 5 per cent of the electrical mix in the U.S., even though there are wind farms in 36 states.

It’s different in other countries. Denmark gets 28 percent of its power from wind. Spain, Portugal and Ireland each get 16 percent from wind.

Isn’t it time for Dominion to get off the dime and do more with wind, rather than using its deep pockets to get paid-for Virginia politicians to do its bidding and change regulatory rules at its whim?