Category Archives: Environment

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact

Shanghai: Soot City

Shanghai: Soot City

By Peter Galuszka

President Barack Obama’s trailblazing pact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions through 2025 is welcome news and could do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the two countries are responsible for about 40 percent of the globe’s total.

China is an economic powerhouse so energy hungry it builds a new coal-fired generating plant about every eight to 10 days. Its leaders have pledged to cap  carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier.

Obama announced a plan to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is a bigger cut than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that he had announced earlier.

The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. It also undercuts the arguments by the fossil fuel industry, some utilities and their drum beaters that any steps the U.S. takes in cutting carbon pollution are pointless since China (or other Asian countries) will keep polluting anyway.

The arguments are crucial since Virginia’s Big Energy industry and the staff of the State Corporation Commission are attacking plans by the EPA to greatly reduce carbon.

Consider this gem of wisdom from another correspondent on this blog: “Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.)”

Sadly, this kind of mentality is regressive and, with the new Washington-Beijing pact, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

One thing many American commentators don’t seem to realize is that China isn’t necessarily a primitive business juggernaut stomping on any rational plan to check pollution. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the highest rates of air pollution in the world and its leadership, especially engineers and policy makers capable of understanding how technology can help them, knows they just can’t continue as before.

Three years ago, I visited both cities to research a book on the coal industry (newly out in an updated paperback, by the way, see below). I also went to Ulanbatour, the capital of coal-driven Mongolia where the air was so bad, I felt delirious within hours after arrival and by the next morning I showed signs of pulmonary illness.

The promise for changing things seems to money and the system.

In the U.S., we have a regulatory oversight apparatus over energy generation. This is reasonable because it prevents electric utilities from using their monopoly power to stick customers with high rates. But the system is flawed because: (1) it too often favors big utilities over average consumers and; (2) it is rigged to prevent new, experimental and possibly transformative technologies that very well could allow the use of dirty and dangerous but still cheap coal.

In the latter case, the thinking seems to be to go for ephemeral cost benefits (like using natural gas) without having any long-term strategy that actually might save lots more money through better health and more efficient, less-polluting energy.

In several cases, regulators nixed pilot plants that burn coal but use special new ways of doing so that capture a lot of carbon either in a chemical process involving ammonia or by stripping off the carbon emission from the pollution stream and sequestering them safely away. The plants cost big money. They are much cheaper to do as greenfield sites but regulators are more inclined to prevent them in favor with the soup d’jour of power that happens to be cheapest at the moment, in our current case, natural gas. Continue reading

What Climate Change Could Mean to Virginia

migration_paths

As temperatures rise (assuming that they do), will there be coherent paths for species to migrate north? This map shows areas where such migrations might occur, if not disrupted by human activity.

by James A. Bacon

The political debate over catastrophic global warming won’t end until the climate either fulfills the dire forecasts of mainstream climate scientists or refuses to cooperate, thus disproving them. Stephen Paul Nash’s book, “Virginia Climate Fever,” is not likely to change many minds on that score. But if you’re wondering how global warming — if it occurs — might affect Virginia’s climate, Nash presents a sobering picture that should inform the thinking of every Virginian. If he’s right, the commonwealth’s environmental future looks grim indeed.

This may be the most important book written about Virginia’s environment in a generation. Nash, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond, makes the scientific debate over global warming readily accessible to the layman. He writes beautifully, explains the issues clearly, and he anticipates many of the arguments of the Global Warming skeptics. For this book, he traveled the length and breadth of Virginia, from the peak of Mount Rogers, with its threatened oasis of cold-adapted spruce-and-fir forest, to sixty miles off the coast where researchers are studying the marine life of underwater canyons. He synthesizes the work of dozens of scientists working on one part or another of Virginia’s climate change, creating a fuller picture than any of them could on their own. (Full disclosure: Steve is one of my closest friends.)

Broadly speaking, Nash says Global Warming (and the rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that drives it) raises three major concerns:

(1) Temperatures are increasing faster than at any time in millions of years, a trend that threatens to outpace the ability of new species to migrate to hospitable ecosystems. Global warming, he suggests, could create a terrible synergy with acid rain, invasive species and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat leading to the extinction of many plant and animal populations and, indeed, of entire species. If existing species are wiped out and new species are slow to migrate north to replace them, America’s once-magnificent Southeast forests could be replaced with a barren savannah.

(2) Rising concentrations of CO2 will acidify the oceans and stress marine life. This problem, incidentally, occurs independently from temperature change. No one disputes the fact that CO2 levels are rising and that acidification stresses marine life; the only debate (of which I’m familiar) is the extent to which marine species can adapt to acidification. In either case, the impact of acidification in the Cheasapeake Bay is magnified by warming waters, overfishing and excess nutrients dumped into the watershed.

(3) Rising sea levels will subject large swaths of the Tidewater to increasing flooding and, ultimately, permanent inundation. Some of the flooding can be attributed to subsidence of the land in response to the retreat of Ice Age glaciers thousands of years ago and will continue, regardless of what happens to global temperatures. If warming occurs, melting icecaps and heating the water — warm water occupies slightly more space than cold — climate change will accelerate the encroachment of the sea upon the land that’s already taking place.

Nash deals with other issues as well, from the impact of temperatures on rainfall and agricultural productivity to the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

My purpose here is not to re-argue the case for and against catastrophic global warming, a topic upon which most people already have firm views and are not likely to change their minds. (For the record, I’m inclined to believe that the planet will continue to warm at a slow-but-steady pace, as it has since the end of the Little Ice Age, but far less rapidly than the catastrophic scenarios called for in the more apocalyptic literature.)

Nash’s valuable contribution that even skeptics should appreciate is to provide a close-up look at environmental risks that Virginia faces. Based on the 18-year pause in rising temperatures, forecast by none of the warmists’ climate models, I don’t see the worst-case scenario transpiring. But Nash makes an excellent point. Let’s assume temperatures and sea levels won’t reach the predicted horror-scenario levels by 2100. It may take a few decades longer than currently anticipated to get there. (Maybe a century longer, in my estimation.) But we’ll get there eventually. We should take advantage of that time to build more resilient communities.

In my view, the tragedy of politics in Virginia is that nearly all public policy is devoted to the proposition that by reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, Virginians can have a meaningful impact on global temperatures. Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.) The point is, the commonwealth and its citizens are investing billions of dollars in LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy, mass transit, electric cars and a host of other saintly endeavors whose collective impact upon global temperatures may be measurable in one-hundredths of a degree over the next century. Continue reading

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

The night of Tuesday, Nov. 4 was an ugly one for the Democrats and a big win for Republicans. Here are my takeaways from it:

  • U.S. Sen.Mark Warner clings to a tiny lead that seems to grow slightly, still making it uncertain if opponent Ed Gillespie will ask for a recount. The surprisingly tight race is an embarrassment for Warner. It likely takes him out of consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 although Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are still possibilities.
  • Ed Gillespie ran a smart campaign and came off as a solid candidate. Of course, we are comparing him against Kenneth Cuccinelli and that’s a very low bar but Gillespie’s projection of being relaxed and confident helped him. Gillespie did very well despite being dissed by the national Republican money machine. Look for him in the gubernatorial race of 2017.
  • Barack Obama takes his lumps — again. The country’s on the mend and things are going fairly well (despite what you may watch on Fox), but Obama is incapable of cashing in on that. His cool, detached style is a big minus and makes him seem careless and incompetent, especially when crisis like ebola come up that are not of his making.
  • The Republican wins on Capitol Hill are more significant than the Tea Party inspired once during the 2010 midterms.But the earlier races brought in a kind of mindless negativity and gridlock by both parties that truly hurt the country. Will that happen again? Or will older, wise heads prevail?
  • Increase in coverage my Obamacare The New York Times

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

    You might get some bipartisan action on taxes and the budget, but deadlock remains for Affordable Care and immigration. The fact is that Obamacare is too far along to change much and people actually like it, despite what you hear in the right-wing echo chamber. This chart from the New York Times shows that the ACA has boosted health coverage in some of the poorest parts of the country, such as the Appalachian coal country, the African-American belts of the Deep South; and poor parts of the Southwest like New Mexico and parts of Arizona. This alone is a big success.

  • Immigration. Look for Obama to use executive authority to come up with an immigration plan. It is an emotional, hot button issue that reveals lots of ugly attitudes. But something needs to be done fast. The GOP has no plan, except for George W. Bush who actually pushed a workable solution that was compassionate. That got soaked by the Tea Party, but then Republican Mitt Romney came up with a health care plan for Massachusetts that looks remarkable like Obamacare and was a precursor. If the GOP can get back to those helpful ideals, there may be hope.
  • Warner lots big swaths of voters who had been with him, like Loudoun County and parts of rural Virginia. This is alarming for the Dems and shows they need to project their messages a lot better. Warner’s poor performance in debates didn’t help either.

It is a big win for the GOP, but somehow I don’t feel as bitter as I was in 2010.

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

Stephen Nash, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Richmond, has written an important new book about how climate change could affect Virginia. His detailed reporting is impressive and I think he shatters the arguments of global warming deniers.

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

“Imagine it’s a fall day in 2114. You get ready for a jog down by the James River.

It’s pleasant by the towering palm trees, but you must keep an eye out for alligators and the venomous cottonmouth moccasins as big around as your thigh. It’s best to exercise early because the rest of the day will be typically steamy and windless.

This is what Richmond very well could be like within 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions stay at the same levels as today. Virginia’s climate could warm up to something like that in northern Florida, according to Stephen Nash, a part-time journalism professor at the University of Richmond in his new book, “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” (University of Virginia Press).”

To read more, click here.

In Energy Studies, No Renewables, Please

Karmis of VT's Center for Coal Research

Karmis of VT’s Center for Coal Research

By Peter Galuszka

For years, Virginia Tech has operated the Center for Coal Research which is dedicated to studying bituminous product, enhance its marketability and make mining it safer and less environmentally destructive.

The center receives funding and has sponsors and an advisory board made up of big utilities like Dominion, coal-hauling railroads like Norfolk Southern, a few state officials and coal company executives from Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal. No environmental advocates are advisers nor are proponents of renewable energy.

So, it was with considerable interest that I was introduced to a new “watchdog” group named the Checks and Balances Project, based in Northern Virginia and  funded by advocating clean energy and sustainability such as the New Venture fund and Renew American Prosperity Inc.

In several intriguing blog posts, Scott Peterson, a former media spokesman for the New York Stock Exchange and now executive director of Checks and Balances, asks why Michael Karmis, an internationally-known VT coal expert, was asked to write the cost-benefit analysis for the State Energy Plan released last month that will guide the General Assembly in passing laws relating to energy.

Peterson notes that Karmis’s report was a foundation document used by the State Corporation Commission staff when it gave a big thumbs down to the U.S. EPA’s proposed rules to cut carbon dioxide. The SCC claimed that the rules would shutter much coal-fired generation (much of which was going to be shut down anyway) and that renewables like solar and wind are too expensive, unreliable and scarce to replace the lost generation capacity.

I blogged about this repeatedly in recent weeks and I asked why Virginia has such a puny share of renewable energy compared to its neighboring states. I got responses from the SCC and also from Dominion as well as the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and posted them.

Peterson’s points are spot on. Why would the state and the SCC go to such an overwhelmingly pro-coal group for what seems like a self-serving and self-dealing cost-benefit analysis? Do Virginians not deserve input from other players pushing forms of energy? Why did they not consult economic forecasting groups specializing in energy but chose instead Chmura Economics & Analytics of Richmond, which has no special energy expertise and has been criticized (by me) for tending to say what state officials want.

It is really a shame that the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is following the same stacked-decks that former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell used to use. During his time in office, I outlined several instances where McDonnell chose “advisors” mostly from the coal and nuclear and natural gas industries to “study” energy needs or whether uranium mining near Chatham would be safe.

Also take a look at who the sponsors of the Virginia Tech coal center are:

  • Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol bought the extremely troubled and controversial Massey Energy whose renegade CEO, Don Blankenship, was so loose with safety and so strong on production demands that 29 miners lost their lives in a massive blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, according to three probes of the incident. I wrote a book about it.
  • Arch Coal is one of the most controversial users of ecologically devastating mountaintop removal surface mining in southwest Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia,.
  • Evan Energy Investments is a Richmond-based firm started by E. Morgan Massey, whose family started A.T. Massey coal which later became Massey Energy. E. Morgan Massey had no corporate duties at Massey Energy during the 2010 blast but during the 1980s, he beat the United Mine Workers by instituting his “Massey Doctrine” of tough negotiating.
  • Patriot Coal is a spin-off of Peabody Coal, the largest coal firm in the U.S. Peabody had assets in the Central Appalachians but found that its western U.S., Illinois Basin and foreign operations were more profitable so it created Patriot. The spin off has been bankrupt at least once and has been criticized for trying to cut benefits for retired miners who had worked for Peabody.

To be sure, several state and federal organizations are also sponsors and I’m told that the center does do worthwhile working on setting up computer-based networks of sensors that would automatically shut down a deep mine’s operations if it found bad levels of explosive coal dust or methane. It also has done work to find carbon capture technologies that could allow coal to be burned cleanly.

The larger point is that the state is structured in ways that do not provide a place at the table for people not associated with big, traditional, base-loaded energy such as coal and nuclear power stations. Many accounts show that solar and wind are becoming much more technically and cost effective. Although the U.S. Department of Energy does not expect wind or solar to be more than about 20 percent of the total energy mix any time soon, its growth is picking up speed.

If more houses and businesses adopt solar panels as they get cheaper and better, they will reduce their need for Big Energy. As that happens, the large utilities, coal firms and railroads may get stuck with trillions of dollars’ worth of “stranded” and unused assets. Guess will end up paying for a lot of them? The ratepayers, of course, with the SCC’s blessing.

Dominion Makes Big Power Move — What Does It Mean?

dominion_transmission_lineby James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power is soliciting industry proposals to provide about 1,600 megawatts of electrical generating capacity by 2019-2020. “We have identified a need for additional generation in our long-term system planning,” says Roger Williams, director of power contracts. None of this will come from renewable resources.

Unlike some who opine on this blog, I’m agnostic about renewable energy. If solar, wind power, biomass and other renewable energy sources can be worked into the electric-generating mix without clobbering rate payers or creating reliability problems, I’m happy to have it. But my top priorities are keeping electric rates low and ensuring a reliable power supply. As countries like Germany have discovered, wind power quite literally changes with the wind, and solar power varies with cloud cover. That means power companies have to build and maintain an expensive backup capacity to keep the juice flowing at all times.

What I find surprising about Dominion’s announcement is that the company isn’t planning to build the added capacity itself, which is traditionally what power companies have done. The old rule of thumb was that building more power plants allows utilities to expand the rate base. Because utilities are guaranteed a financial return on the rate base (barring unusual circumstances), more capacity translates into bigger earnings. Somehow, under the new re-regulation regime, that old calculus no longer applies. I’m not sure what’s driving Dominion’s decisions financially right now.

Dominion’s solicitation requires that any new power capacity be located on the PJM regional interconnection grid that coordinates the wheeling of electricity across a region serving more than 50 million people. The utility, reports Peter Bacque with the Times-Dispatch, also wants the electricity to come from base-load plants (which generate 70% of the time) or intermediate plants (30% to 70% of the time). The electricity must be “dispatchable,” or available when needed. That last requirement excludes wind and power.

Basically, Dominion favors a Big Grid transmission framework as opposed to a Smart Grid framework. In a Big Grid arrangement, electric power can be shuttled from state to state, region to region, as supply and demand dictate — subject to the capacity of the transmission lines. The advantage of Big Grid is that power companies can select from a much broader array of options for generating capacity, not just in it own service area, which translates into lower generating costs. The flip side is that Big Grid requires more giant transmission lines to move the electricity — and people don’t like transmission lines running through their property. Another concern is that the more centralized an electric grid is, the more vulnerable it is to sabotage, extreme weather and other outside forces that could lead to cascading outages.

One alternative is the Smart Grid which allows for the two-way flow of electricity and the monitoring of electricity consumption with so-called smart meters. By collecting detailed data, power companies can better manage their power supplies, especially if rate structures give industry, business and households incentives to curtail electricity consumption during periods of peak demand. Smart grids are seen as essential to handling the variable supply created by solar and wind power, allowing power companies more flexibility in adjusting their power flows. Smart grids won’t solve all the problems caused by the variability of renewable energy, but they are part of the solution.

Another big advantage, in theory at leas:. Because smart grids are more decentralized, they can accommodate locally generated power, which creates local economic opportunities. Also, in theory, they are less vulnerable to catastrophic disruption.

Dominion has dipped its toe into the smart grid arena — home electric meters, as I recall — but I’ve seen very little written about it in the press. Frankly, I have yet to see a coherent big-picture story about where the electric power industry in Virginia — which includes Appalachian Power and local electric co-op — is heading. It is difficult to make any sense of articles like the one published in the T-D today without the bigger picture.

Why Private Space Firms Need Oversight

By Peter Galuszka

Virgin galacticDoes bad news come in twos or threes?

First, on Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket bound to supply the International Space Station exploded seconds into its take off at Wallops Island on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Three days later, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo designed for space tourism broke in two during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot was killed and the second was seriously injured when he parachuted to safety.

Both incidents involve private companies pushing ahead to commercialize space which used to be the province of the federal government, NASA and the military. The Orbital incident brought the usual cries that the government should continue its hands off policies about regulating the private space industry. The Virgin Galactic accident changes that equation.

For some background, here’s space.com:

“Thus far, the private space industry has resisted oversight from federal regulators, but that could change in the wake of the accident.

“I suspect there will be pressure for tighter regulations,” (John)  Logsdon (of George Washington University) said.

“In 2012, Congress passed a bill that extended the “learning period” for the commercial spaceflight industry. The measure was championed by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, whose district covers the Mojave spaceport.

“The provision essentially prohibited the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, dubbed AST, from issuing regulations designed only for the protection of passengers until October 2015. The idea behind this hands-off approach was to allow the spaceflight industry to gain real-world data from their first licensed commercial launches; the FAA would, in turn, use this information to eventually craft regulations.

“In the wake of the accident, Virgin Galactic and the National Transportation Safety Board — the federal agency leading the investigation — have warned against speculation until the ongoing investigation is complete. But critics have made strong claims about risks the company took.

“Tom Bower, a biographer of Branson, told BBC Radio 4 that the accident was “predictable and inevitable.” Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter who has been following Virgin Galactic’s progress, made similar charges shortly after the accident in an appearance on CNN, adding: “I don’t see them at least being able to carry anybody into space in the next 10 years.

“Andrea Gini, of the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, criticized Virgin Galactic for a lack of transparency about its safety procedures.

“We don’t know how Scaled Composites approached this particular test,” Gini told Space.com in an email. “Virgin Galactic has always refused to participate to the public discussion inside the space safety community, and has never sought the support of independent reviewers.”

“Gini said there are elements of Virgin Galactic’s flight design that experts consider hazardous. The decision to fly passengers and even crew without pressurized space suits, for example, could expose them to risk of decompression, he said.

“Space is, and will always be, a risky industry,” Gini said. “But it is not a new one. I believe that commercial operators should approach it with transparency and humility, or their business, and not just their vehicles, will be doomed to failure.””

That’s sobering. In the Wallops Island case, investigators are loo9king at where decades-old, modified, Russian-made rocket engines that the Russians deemed too dangerous to use were a cause.

There are questions that need answering.

Dominion Responds to My Renewable Energy Post

Dominion logoBy Peter Galuszka

In recent days, there’s been a plenty of discussion about renewable energy.  After I wrote two posts,  Chester “Chet” Wade, a senior spokesman for Dominion Resources, called me to take issue with some of my ideas. I  offered him space to explain Dominion’s views. Here is his response:

Your follow-up column has the same shortcoming as the first one. They both ignore the facts that don’t support your conclusion.

We discussed a lot of issues on the phone. As I said, my point on contributions was that you were being selective in your reporting and unchallenging of the other side. We don’t mind being asked tough questions, but we think others should face the same level of scrutiny. That disparity seems to be present again.

Here are some of the other points you left out from our conversation, along with additional details:

Approximately half the electricity Dominion produced last year came from carbon-free nuclear and renewable sources. Our carbon intensity is among the best in the nation, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the same time our electric rates in Virginia are 14.7 percent below the national average, and our reliability is at an all-time high. All are important points to those who depend on us for their energy.

Dominion values renewable energy as part of a diverse, clean mix of power generation to provide reliable, affordable energy.   For example, in Virginia, Dominion operates more renewable biomass than any other utility in the nation.  We’ve invested in biomass, because it is cost effective and can run around the clock.

We’ve also invested in solar energy with our innovative Solar Partnership Program, and we are a leader in developing offshore wind. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a Dominion-led team $47 million to develop a Virginia pilot project aimed at making offshore wind more affordable.

Dominion did not “squelch” the solar project at Washington & Lee, as you reported. We reached an agreement that allowed the project to go forward.

The Sierra Club’s “analysis” of renewable energy standards you cited is specious, at best.  For example, it fails to mention that states with mandatory renewable portfolio standards also typically have significantly higher electricity prices.

And it does not mention that West Virginia has an alternative and renewable energy standard that counts natural gas, coal bed methane, waste coal, and pumped storage hydro. By that same standard, Dominion has more than 9,000 megawatts of alternative and renewable energy. And that total does not include wind or solar energy we have outside of Virginia.

Your column also touted West Virginia as a regional leader in wind production. What it missed is that we own 50 percent of West Virginia’s largest wind farm, paid for not by our utility customers but by our shareholders.  On the other hand, an onshore wind project we proposed for Virginia withered with virtually no support from the Sierra Club.

Producing affordable, reliable and clean energy requires a balance. That balance was sadly missing from your column.