Category Archives: Environment

How Much Is It Worth to Preserve Dominion’s Nuclear Option?

Schematic of proposed North Anna 3 nuclear plant. Image source: Dominion.

Schematic of proposed North Anna 3 nuclear plant. Image source: Dominion.

by James A. Bacon

Perhaps the biggest question facing Virginia as it implements the Clean Power Plan, which mandates a 37% reduction in CO2 emissions from Virginia power plants by 2030, is what fuel mix to rely upon. Compelled to cut coal use sharply, Virginia’s power companies effectively have a choice of natural gas, nuclear and renewables such as wind and solar.

While not committed to building a third nuclear plant at North Anna Three, Dominion Virginia Power has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create that option. But leading Virginia environmental groups have declared their all-out opposition to nuclear power, despite its zero carbon emissions. Then on Wednesday the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the interests of Virginia’s consumers, publicly stated that Dominion should abandon its nuclear initiative on the grounds of cost.

“How many hundreds of millions or billions of dollars does a company need to spend … before we can say we are planning to build this generation project?” said William Reisenger, an assistant attorney general, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Is there a threshold? Could Dominion spend $3 billion on a generation project without deciding whether it is building that project?”

At present, North Anna 3 is the third most expensive option for complying with the Clean Power Plan, Thomas P. Wohlfarth, Dominion’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs, acknowledged Wednesday in a hearing about Dominion’s long-range planning document, the Integrated Resources Plan. But that ranking could change. “All it takes is some variation on how the state decides to implement the plan, or decisions by other states, or a change in gas prices. You could very easily see a flip in the value where North Anna ends up being the lowest cost. … You can’t go all in on one fuel source.”

Framed this way, the question becomes how much is it worth to maintain diversified power sources for Virginia’s electric grid?

Dominion, like other electric utilities across the country, is increasing its commitment to natural gas. Gas is cheap (at the moment), it is virtually pollution free, and it has half the carbon emissions of coal. But there are legitimate questions how long it will remain cheap. No one is certain how long the Marcellus and Utica shale fields can continue to expand production, or how long supplies can keep pace with increasing consumption, especially after the U.S. starts exporting liquefied natural gas.

The main non-nuclear alternatives to natural gas are solar energy and wind power. In the past, those power sources have been exceedingly expensive, but improving technology has brought costs down. In Virginia, off-shore wind is still wildly uncompetitive in the near-term, and it appears that on-shore wind, sited mainly along mountain ridges, will be only a niche power source. The economics of solar look far more positive. The issue with solar, as with wind, is the intermittent nature of the power production. How much conventionally powered backup will be required, and what will be the impact, as solar becomes a major contributor, on electric grid reliability?

The strategic question Dominion is asking is this: Does Virginia want a future electric grid that relies largely upon natural gas, wind and solar? Or does it want to diversify its fuel mix with nuclear power to provide a stable base? Should the state roll the dice on two or three power sources or spread its bets to include nuclear?

The cost of nuclear is a huge consideration. According an expert witness for the AG’s office, North Anna 3 would cost in the realm of $19.3 billion, a sum that could increase customers’ electric bills by 25%. Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, declared the nuclear project “the biggest single threat posed today against the pocketbooks of Virginia consumers.”

Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher says the AG office’s $19.3 billion estimate is “not unreasonable.” But it’s important to understand the context. That is not the up-front capital cost of building North Anna 3. The figure includes the cost of interest, which is paid out over decades. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that, once built, a new nuclear unit would likely have a 60-year life span, longer by decades than the life span of an investment in gas, wind or solar. All things factored in, will nuclear will be economically competitive? As Wohlfarth says, it all depends.

So, how much is it worth to maintain the nuclear option, not knowing whether it will ever be exercised? It’s not clear from the Times-Dispatch article where Reisenger with the AG’s office got the $3 billion figure. (I suspect it was a number pulled out of thin air for purpose of making a rhetorical point, not meant to be an authoritative cost projection.) Whatever the source, Dominion takes issue with it. Wrote Zuercher in an email late yesterday:

We disagree with the $3 billion stated by the witness in reference to how much the company could spend before committing to the new unit. The net capital spending to date is $278 million, net the $301 million that the Virginia General Assembly  allowed to be covered by existing rates, and does not include interest. It is more likely that spending on the unit could be in the $450 million range (net the write off) by the end of 2017, the year in which we expect the NRC to issue the license that would allow us to build and operate the North Anna 3.

Combining the $301 million “write-off” (what Dominion has already spent and is charging to rate payers) plus an additional $450 million, the total cost of preserving the nuclear option would be about $750 million. That’s about one-quarter the $3 billion figure cited.

Is the benefit of of preserving the nuclear option worth spending $450 million over and above the $301 million in sunk costs? If you’re dead-set against nuclear, no number is worthwhile. If your primary interest is holding down electric rates, maintaining system reliability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the long haul, reaching a judgment is a lot more complicated.

Wind Power in Virginia… 2017 or Bust


by James A. Bacon

Investors have been trying without success for nearly a decade to build wind turbines along the ridge lines of Virginia’s mountains. Projects have bogged down amid concerns about noise generated by thrumming blades, the slaughter of birds and bats, and the imposition of 500-foot-high machines upon neighbors’ pristine views. While wind turbines have sprouted around the country — generating 25% of the electric supply of Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota — not one wind farm has been built in Virginia.

Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy is optimistic that it can break the jinx, predicting that its Botetourt County wind farm, Rocky Forge, will plug into Virginia’s electric grid by late 2017, and that a Pulaski County project, Pinewood, will be up and running by 2018.

I sat down yesterday with Tyson Utt, Apex director of development for the Mid-Atlantic, to discuss land-based wind power in Virginia. When I asked him why there is none,  he didn’t want to talk about what others might have done wrong. Apex’s focus, he said, is on getting it right. The special attention Apex pays to site selection and community relations, he says, minimizes local opposition by framing wind power as an asset, not a liability, to the community.

If anyone is positioned to pull off the feat of generating land-based wind power in Virginia, it’s Apex. Senior management has years of experience in wind, selling a portfolio of projects to BP in 2009 and then launching Apex to acquire stranded wind projects around the country and add to them with internally developed projects. The team includes more than 150 employees steeped in all aspects of siting, constructing and operating windmills. Pocketing $30 million in second-round financing in August to finance its growth, Apex has 53 wind projects in 25 states completed or under development.

The economics of wind power are improving as the turbines that convert wind to energy continuously improve in efficiency, says Utt. Meanwhile, there is growing demand for green energy as states adopt Renewable Portfolio Standards (mandatory targets for renewable energy as a percentage of total electricity production) and as corporations seek to establish their green bona fides by purchasing green power. While concerns persist about the intermittent nature of wind, the experience of other states and some European countries, he says, has demonstrated that wind can account for a significant percentage of total electric power without compromising the reliability of the electric grid.

Apex’s value proposition, says Utt, is the close attention it pays to site selection. The development team does due diligence on potential locations, focusing not only on technical factors such as wind speeds and variability, and economic factors such as proximity to transmission lines, but to intangibles like wildlife habitat and impact on view sheds. “We factor in community acceptance when we site a project,” he says.

High on the list is aligning the interests of the landowner with the company, says Utt. Typically, that means paying the landowner a royalty as a percentage of revenues generated, and it means configuring the project so that the landowner can continue using the land — for farming, forestry, whatever — that he or she had been using it for previously. In the case of the Rocky Forge project, which will have up to 25 windmills, a provision is written into the lease that allows hunters to continue using the land, a measure that has helped win over local hunting clubs. Also critical to building public support is creating an open line of communication with county residents to allay the inevitable fears.

An advantage of the Rocky Forge project is that the wind turbines will be located on isolated mountain ridges that will be seen by relatively few people, says Utt. For the most part the mountain ridges will be screened by other ridges and forested land. Botetourt County has enacted an ordinance laying out guidelines for development of wind projects, including a restriction that limits turbines and their blades to a maximum height of 550 feet.

However, Apex hasn’t won over everybody. In July, eight Botetourt residents filed a lawsuit in circuit court claiming that the ordinance failed to protect them from dangers posed by the giant windmills. “Industrial wind turbines are known to catch fire, to collapse, emit audible and low frequency noise, cause shadow flicker and to throw ice from spinning blades in the wintertime,” the lawsuit states. And that’s just the impact on people. The giant blades also kill birds and bats.

The county isn’t backing down, and Apex is proceeding with development. In July the company applied for a permit to build three temporary meteorological towers, no higher than 199 feet, to collect data on wind speeds and variability. Eight days ago, the company asked the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a determination that the towers would not interfere with passing airplanes.

Important aspects of the Rocky Forge project have yet to be determined, like who will buy the electricity. Apex might sell it to a power company — the site is located next to a Dominion Virginia Power transmission line — or to a large commercial customer, or even to the wholesale market. If the price was right, it could sell the project to another owner, although Apex’s business model calls for operating and maintaining the wind farms itself. The company monitors and controls facilities around the country from a central facility in Charlottesville 24 hours per day.

When asked what the General Assembly, Governor’s Office or the State Corporation Commission can do to make Virginia more hospitable to on-shore wind power, Utt doesn’t have any suggestions. He just emphasizes the opportunity created by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which compels Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions over the next several years, to grow a new industry.

Fostering the growth of Virginia-based wind farms keeps economic activity in the state, Utt observes. Virginia is one of the largest importers of electric power of any state in the country. Why not create a revenue stream for Virginia landowners and a Virginia company instead of importing green power from outside the state?

Thanks to improving technology, the cost of wind has come down 58% over the past five years, says Utt. Between the growing demand for green energy and the declining cost, growth of the wind industry is “inevitable.” Virginia might as well take part.

Woolly Headed Thinking about Transportation

Woolly headed

Baaah! Baaaaaaah!

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach’s ongoing debate over light rail is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Virginia’s system for determining which transportation projects get built. While the Virginia Department of Transportation is implementing a mechanism for ranking road and highway projects, there is no mechanism for ascertaining the proper balance between roads/highways and mass transportation or even to prioritize mass transit projects. Those choices remain as muddied and politicized as ever.

The latest episode in the long-running saga of Virginia Beach light rail, which would extend Norfolk’s existing The Tide rail line to the Virginia Beach resort area, revolved around a bid yesterday by Virginia Beach Councilman John Moss to use $10 million dedicated for light-rail plans to plug a projected $33 million budget hole. City Council rebuffed the measure, but a vocal minority of citizens continue the fight against the rail line. (See the Virginian-Pilot coverage here.)

Foes oppose a rail line that will require heavy up-front subsidies to build and ongoing subsidies to operate. They make a legitimate point. Rail supporters retort that building and maintaining roads also entail taxpayer subsidies. They, too, make a legitimate point. Ever since Virginia abandoned the user-pays principle of transportation funding in the bipartisan transportation-funding legislation of the McDonnell administration, all forms of transportation are subsidized to a greater or lesser degree. Because everything is subsidized, it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether any project is economically justifiable. Anyone can make any claim without any effective way to test it.

In an ideal world, Virginia Beach’s mass transit project would pay for itself through (a) fare revenues, (b) ancillary revenues such as advertising, and (c) revenues from special tax districts surrounding rail stations to capture some of the increased real-estate value created by the rail service. A transit authority would issue bonds to be repaid from those revenue sources, and bond buyers would exercise an independent, non-political judgment as to whether they were likely to earn a competitive, risk-adjusted return on their investment.

But it’s not an ideal world. Mass transit advocates argue rightly that rail competes against subsidized roads. No longer does Virginia pay for its roads mainly through the gas tax. But, rather than hold road funding to a higher and stricter standard, Virginia carves out a percentage of transportation allocations for mass transit. Funds are spread around to appease regional constituencies and ideological enthusiasms.

To see where fuzzy logic of transit funding leads us, read this op-ed by Nelson Reveley, a co-coordinator for the Richmond Clergy Committee for Rapid Transit. Reveley invokes social justice, the environment, public safety and economic development in support of a “comprehensive transportation system for the sake of all our citizens” in the Richmond region. Writes Reveley, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia:

This isn’t about any singular neighborhood. It’s about all our neighborhoods, as we appreciate and celebrate our intimate interrelation as one metro ecology of education and commerce, employment and leisure, justice and mercy, beauty and creativity, vulnerability and mutuality.

My stomach heaves in rebellion against such treacly sentimentality. Nowhere in his op-ed does Reveley wonder how much this majestic mass transit system might cost. Obviously, the concept of “alternate opportunity cost” is not taught in the UVa religious program, for nowhere does Reveley wonder what could be accomplished by expending the same sum in other ways. Nor does he much care who will pay for this vision of his, although we can be certain it will not be the people who ride the buses or otherwise benefit from the transit lines through the higher property values he insists will occur or workforce benefits accruing from the young talent he suggests will be attracted to the region.

Further, nowhere does Reveley acknowledge the emergence of an alternative, private sector-driven model as epitomized by companies like Uber, Lyft and Bridj, which, given sufficient time and dismantling of regulatory barriers, could provide a shared-ridership transportation alternative far more robust and comprehensive than a public system.

The prevalence of blinkered, woolly headed thinking in the Old Dominion is just staggering. It goes a long way towards explaining our stagnation and relative decline among the 50 states.

SCC Says Dominion Must Seek Third-Party Solar Alternatives

solarThe State Corporation Commission has nixed Dominion Virginia Power’s proposal to construct a 20-megawatt solar projects near its Remington Power Station in Fauquier County, stating that the power company must first see third-party alternatives.

In its final order, the Commission said, “As a ‘small renewable’ solar project, the Remington Solar Facility is one type of generation resource that the General Assembly has identified as in the public interest. … The General Assembly, however, has not declared it to be in the public interest that renewable power can only be obtained from the applicant’s own self-built project … or at any price, no matter how burdensome to consumers.”

The estimated cost of the proposed facility would be $2,350 per kilowatt, and its capacity factor (the percentage of time that it would operate) would be 22 percent. “The comparatively high cost to consumers and low capacity factor … underscore that serious and credible efforts, as required by the General Assembly, must be made to determine whether lower cost alternatives for obtaining renewable power are available in the market from third parties.”

Dominion issued the following response:

We are disappointed in this setback in our efforts to add  renewable energy. We believe we have shown this project is among the most cost-effective ways to add solar generated capacity in Virginia. Large-scale solar is needed in order to meet new federal carbon rules, diversify Dominion’s fuel mix and support bipartisan legislation passed in the General Assembly and signed by the governor, to build at least 500 megawatts of solar generation in the state by 2020.  We are evaluating our options regarding this project.

The SCC invited Dominion to re-file after seeking third-party alternatives. See Dominion’s Remington solar page here.


Environmentalist Update on Offshore Wind

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

by James A. Bacon

Judging from comments made in a Environment Virginia-sponsored webinar held this morning, environmentalists, the McAuliffe administration and Dominion Virginia Power are operating on the same wave length when it comes to developing offshore wind power in Virginia. If environmental groups have big differences with Dominion on how to proceed, no sign of criticism surfaced in the webinar presentations.

The main focus of environmentalists, as it is for Dominion, is bringing down the cost of offshore wind power. The top priority nationally is building a big enough pipeline of wind power projects off the Atlantic Coast to persuade manufacturers, specialty vessels and others in Europe’s established wind-power supply chain to create a presence on the U.S. East Coast. The existence of a supply chain, along with continued technological development, could make offshore wind power far more cost competitive in the U.S. than it is today.

Here in Virginia, the top priority is ensuring that Dominion builds two experimental turbines off Virginia Beach that will provide the data needed to optimize the development of hundreds of wind turbines in a subsequent project potentially large enough to power 700,000 homes. The big hurdle is persuading the State Corporation Commission that such a massive investment would constitute an acceptable trade-off between cost, reliability and environmental goals.

David Carr, general counsel for the Southern Environmental Law Center, provided an overview of Dominion’s offshore wind initiatives. Dominion solicited bids to build a two experimental turbines off the Virginia coast. (The turbines would test an unproven hurricane-resilient design and a new turbine foundation.) The original plan was to seek SCC approval in 2015, said Carr, but the low bid of $375 million to build the two turbines far exceeded the original estimate of $230 million. Dominion has restructured the contract by breaking it into four components in the hope of stimulating more competitive bidding and reducing the risk premiums bidders build into their offers. The new goal is to file with the SCC by June 2016.

Hayes Framme, advisor for infrastructure and development with the Secretariat of Commerce and Trade, said the McAuliffe administration played a key role in moving the Dominion’s experimental-turbines project forward by negotiating a complex lease with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other federal agencies to lease the ocean bottom where the turbines would be located. “Without this lease,” he said, “we would not be able to get these turbines in.”

An offshore wind farm would advance two McAuliffe administration goals: increasing the state’s commitment to renewable energy and also promoting economic development. A study completed this summer found that Virginia is “uniquely positioned” to house “at least a portion, if not most, of the supply chain” supporting an East Coast offshore wind industry, Framme said. Virginia ports are located in the Mid-Atlantic, providing convenient access to projects to the north and south, and it has a large existing ship-repair infrastructure.

“Having a commercial deployment off Virginia’s coast sends a signal that we are serious,” Framme said. “If we don’t lay the foundation now, it will be more difficult for us to take advantage of that opportunity when it does come.”

Virginia’s projects are not sufficiently large by themselves to coax the offshore wind supply chain to bolster its U.S. presence. That will take commitments from multiple states. Fortunately, that commitment seems to be forthcoming, said Stephanie McClellan, director of a special initiative on offshore wind housed at the University of Delaware. The states of New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and Maryland all are actively exploring offshore wind opportunities. The state of New York has set a goal of 50% renewables by 2030, while New York City has established a goal of 100% renewables for electricity consumed by municipal operations.

To build a supporting infrastructure for offshore wind, said McClellan, eastern U.S. states need to provide market visibility and revenue certainty for a volume of projects over time, as well as more data on site-specific conditions such as wind speeds and wave size. The cost of wind power dropped “precipitously” in Europe as the industry gained scale; it will do so in the U.S. as well, she said.

Bacon’s bottom line: I posed one question to the presenters: Given the intermittent nature of wind production, has anyone studied the impact of a massive wind farm on the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid? The short answer: No. However, presenters noted that European countries have integrated large off-shore wind projects into their power grids, and PJM Interconnection, the group that ensures grid reliability in the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest, including Virginia, has looked into the issue.

Update: Regarding the impact of massive off-shore wind power on the electric grid… a Dominion planning department study published in 2010 concluded, “It is possible to interconnect large scale wind generation facilities up to a total installed capability of 4500 MW with the existing transmission system in the Virginia Beach area.  The study also indicates that when the actual output of the wind farm or farms approaches 2700 MW, there are greater probabilities that the output will have to be limited due to transmission constraints unless transmission infrastructure improvement are made.” Those improvements could cost between $30 million and $70 million.

How about Habitat Exchanges for the Cow Knob Salamander?

If ranchers, mineral companies and environmentalists can work together to protect the greater sage grouse, can't Virginians work together to protect the Cow Knob salamander?

If ranchers, mineral companies and environmentalists can work together to protect the greater sage grouse, can’t Virginians work together to protect the Cow Knob salamander?

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been cogitating a lot recently over the difficulty of building major infrastructure projects in Virginia that are vital to the economy yet intrude upon landowner rights and the environment. One problem, which I dubbed the “rule of firsties,” is the spreading conviction that existing landowners (the ones who got there first) have a right to undeveloped view sheds comprised of other peoples’ property. Another problem is the near impossibility of building a highway, power line or pipeline that doesn’t impinge upon some historical home, burial plot, neolithic Indian settlement or some Freebish Loutwort of a rare species. Most recently I highlighted the ruckus over the Cow Knob salamander whose habitat lies in the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

It’s more difficult building Big Infrastructure today than it was a century ago because we value things that we didn’t back then and want to protect them. We don’t like bulldozing our history and cultural heritage. We don’t like driving endangered species into extinction. We don’t like steamrolling landowners who just want to be left alone. So, what’s to be done?

There are no easy answers, just different trade-offs. But some trade-offs arguably are less painful than others. When I wrote about the Cow Knob salamander yesterday, I suggested that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might somehow mitigate or offset the effect of its destruction to the salamander’s habitat. Frankly, I had no clear idea how that might be done, although I was thinking vaguely that we could create a mechanism like wetlands banks, in which a developer or builder offsets the destruction of wetlands by creating new wetlands somewhere else.

Could we do something similar for Cow Knob salamanders? Well perhaps we can. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has taken the lead in prairie and Rocky Mountain states to create “habitat exchanges” that are doing for the greater sage grouse, the lesser prairie chicken and the mule deer what I kinda, sorta had in mind for the salamander.

Writes Fred Krupp, president of the EDF in the Wall Street Journal today:

Think of it as an Airbnb for wildlife. Just as the online company Airbnb allows homeowners to get paid for opening a spare bedroom to travelers, habitat exchanges allow landowners to get paid for providing quality habitat for vulnerable wildlife. The revenue is supplied by infrastructure, energy and other developers, which need to mitigate the environmental impact of their projects. But concerned individuals, nongovernmental organizations or corporations can also share in the cost, donating funds to an exchange. …

Though it would be ideal to set aside enough habitat to ensure the survival of the nation’s critters, practically speaking we can’t. The best alternative is to share resources so everyone wins.

I don’t know what kind of legal framework might be needed for Virginians to start creating habitat exchanges, but someone ought to take a look. We likely won’t devise a solution in time to address concerns raised by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but you can rest assured that other Big Infrastructure projects will be proposed in the future and that the same kinds of issues will be raised. We can either stagger from one zero-sum-game slug-fest to another, or we can devise options like habitat exchanges to make the inevitable trade-offs less painful. The choice is ours.

Read more about habitat exchanges here.

Virginia’s Answer to the Snail Darter?

Photo credit: Gary Nafis

Photo credit: Gary Nafis

by James A. Bacon

The proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline runs through the mountain habitat of the Cow Knob salamander, creating a new rallying point for pipeline foes. National forest officials say the pipeline should be routed around salamander territory or even under it by drilling through Shenandoah Mountain, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Even the most minor habitat alteration can cause detrimental effects to these salamanders,” says Jennifer Adams, special project coordinator for the George Washington and Jefferson National forests.

For its part, Dominion, managing partner of the pipeline, says it is working with federal officials to resolve the issue. “We are currently evaluating potential options and are planning to meet with the Forest Service to discuss these options that provide the avoidance it has requested,” said Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle.

Source: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Source: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Virginia’s mountains are literally crawling with salamanders, many species of which are rare due to the fact that mountainous terrain creates isolated gene pools. Three species — the Shenandoah, the Peaks of Otter and the Big Levels — live only in Virginia. The Cow Knob salamander, whose range overlaps Virginia and West Virginia, is described by the Virginia and West Virginia Draft State Wildlife Action Plans as facing “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation.” The species enjoys a variety of conservation protections in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Virginia’s largest wilderness area.

The proposed pipeline would “kill numerous Cow Knob salamanders” by destroying habit directly through forest clearing and indirectly by exposing the forest edge to sunlight, wind and edge predators, says H. Thomas Speaks Jr., Forest Service forest supervisor, in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Further, by dividing the salamander habitat into southern and northern portions, the pipeline will limit gene flow between the two populations, potentially threatening the viability of the southern population.

Bacon’s bottom line: On the face of it, this sounds like a win-lose proposition. Either the pipeline people win and the salamander loses, or the salamander wins and the pipeline project faces horrendous additional costs. But could there be a compromise?

Speaks’ letter emphasizes that the salamander is threatened by the loss and fragmentation of its habitat. Especially detrimental are utilities, roads and other types of development that penetrate the forest, creating a new “edge” ecosystem inhospitable to the Cow Knob salamander, especially to predators such as raccoons. Two questions: (1) Can Dominion mitigate the impact of its clear-cutting the forest to build the pipeline; and (2) can Dominion offset the impact by mitigating negative impact elsewhere, much as road builders might offset the loss of wetlands by creating wetlands elsewhere?

The Speaks letter mentions some possibilities:

  • Restoration of currently disturbed habitats
  • Acquisition of more habitat
  • Permit vegetative cover of pipeline corridor suitable for Cow Knob salamanders

All of these measures will entail additional expense or inconvenience, which Dominion says will get passed on to pipeline customers. But that expense should be less than the cost of drilling 4,000 feet through Shenandoah Mountain or selecting a different, longer pipeline route.

I’d Like to Know Where They Got that Number!

From WalletHub’s list of “greenest cities” in the United States: Virginia Beach may have ranked only No. 62 for overall greenness out of 100 cities surveyed but it ranked No. 2 in the country for lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Really?

A Whimsical Proposal for Defusing the Skiffes Creek Controversy

Artsy power line proposed for Iceland.

Artsy power line proposed for Iceland.

Two weeks ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued “preliminary finding” that Dominion Virginia Power’s preferred route for building a 500 kV transmission line across a historic stretch of the James River is the lowest-cost alternative for meeting the electricity needs of the Virginia Peninsula while remaining compliant with federal environmental laws. While the Corps continues to deliberate on the issue in the face of stiff public opposition, the finding would seem to improve the odds that the project eventually will get built.

Foes object to the transmission line on the grounds that towers as high as 295 feet will disrupt views of a historic stretch of the James River visible from Jamestown Island, location of the first surviving English-speaking settlement of the New World. While Dominion insists that the power line will be barely visible on the horizon, there is no denying that the structure itself is aesthetically unappealing. (See our in-depth coverage of the controversy here.)

Somewhat whimsically, one Bacon’s Rebellion reader, who asks not to be named, wonders if the aesthetics issue could be addressed by making the power line look less like a power line and more like a piece of art. The image above is a rendering by Choi+Shine Architects for an electric transmission line proposed for Iceland. That project never got built, but I’m wondering in the same spirit if the idea couldn’t be adapted to Virginia — give the tower-figures tricorn hats! The historical purists wouldn’t like it but, heck, maybe the tourists would.


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.