Category Archives: Environment

Marc Edwards, Virginia Hero

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Just when you begin to lose faith in the system, when you think that spendthrift politicians, corporate cronyism and bureaucratic inertia can never be defeated, along comes someone like Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who exposed the lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Mich. Today’s Washington Post describes how he brought the story to light, collecting and testing water samples, assembling a team, battering public officials with Freedom of Information Act requests, and holding government accountable. He spent thousands of dollars of his own money in the process.

A decade previously, Edwards had worked with the Washington Post to demonstrate that corrosion in Washington, D.C.’s pipes had allowed lead to seep into the water supply. He then spent years dogging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until the federal agency conceded the flaws in a 2004 report in which it had concluded that no children had been harmed. “There’s a lot of lessons here for how science can go awry, how bureaucracies can use science to hide the truth,” Edwards told the Post at the time.

Edwards is a hero in Flint. He should be a hero here in Virginia, too, and a model of how citizens can make a difference.

— JAB

Wind Power Breakthrough

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Virginia could finally get a wind farm.

In a unanimous vote, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to grant a permit to build 25 wind turbines on the ridge of North Mountain, clearing the way for construction of the first wind farm in Virginia. The 550-foot-tall turbines had sparked objections that they would be a noisy eyesore and harm wildlife. As a condition of receiving the permit, project owner Apex Clean Energy must abide by 17 conditions that limit the height of the turbines and how much noise they can make, reports the Roanoke Times.

Botetourt County arguably was the biggest obstacle but the Rocky Forge Wind project still needs to obtain state and federal regulatory approval. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that the turbines could pose an aviation hazard.

Rocky Forge is expected to generate 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes.

— JAB

Putting a Price on the Priceless

jamestown_dig

Jamestown archaeological dig site. Photo credit: Daily Press

by James A. Bacon

In its high-stakes effort to win regulatory approval to build a 500 kV electric transmission line to the Virginia Peninsula, Dominion Virginia Power proposed in December to spend $85 million to mitigate the project’s impact on historical and environmental resources. That’s over and above the estimated $155 million cost to build the 7.7-mile line, which Dominion says is critical to maintain a reliable electric supply to nearly 500,000 residents from Williamsburg to Hampton.

Measures in the draft Memorandum of Agreement submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would do nothing to alter the visual intrusion of the 17 towers crossing the James River near Jamestown. But it would allocate $52.7 million to underwrite archaeological work and other improvements in and around Jamestown Island, $15.6 million for water quality improvements, $12.5 million for landscape and battlefield conservation, and $4.2 million to acquire wetlands, restore shorelines and preserve historical resources nearby.

Dominion’s proposal is being circulated for feedback, and there is no guarantee that it will be accepted by the Army Corps, which  is charged with considering the adverse impact of the project on wetlands and historic assets. In the view of some conservationists, nothing can make up for the cluttering of view sheds in and around Jamestown, one of the most important historical sites in American history.

Whatever the Army Corps decides, the MOA still represents a watershed in Virginia regulation. It would be one of the largest sums, perhaps the largest sum, ever proposed to offset the impact of a Virginia utility project on environmental, historic or cultural resources.

“We’ve not conducted an exhaustive file search, but [I] suspect that few final mitigation proposals to resolve adverse effects to historic resources associated with a Corps permit have exceeded a total cost of $85 million,” says Mark W. Haviland, chief of public affairs for the Army Corp’s Norfolk office.

Few spots resonate in the Virginia psyche like Jamestown does, but the state is chockablock with historical sites, cultural sites, landscapes, wildlife habitats and view sheds that many would like to preserve from development. As Bacon’s Rebellion documented recently (see “Clash of Competing Values“), these intangible resources have become so ubiquitous that it is increasingly difficult for energy companies to build gas pipelines or electric transmission lines without crossing multiple assets.

Decades ago, routing pipelines and transmission lines wasn’t the complex task that it is today. It was a relatively straightforward exercise to calculate the fair-market value of farmland, timberland and houses to compensate landowners for lost economic value. But the determinants of economic value for land have evolved. Increasingly, Virginians in rural areas purchase property for the views they offer or the natural habitat they conserve, not for their ability to extract income. Moreover, various public and private entities are identifying habitats and view sheds as worth protecting — historical sites and districts; federal, state and local parks; scenic highways and scenic rivers; private conservation easements and public conservation zones;  and wetlands, wildlife habitat and more.

Can a price tag be put on an acre of habitat for the rare Cow Knob Salamander? How much is it worth to preserve the view from James Madison’s library window at Montpelier? What is the value of an obscure Civil War battlefield such as the indecisive 1864 cavalry clash at Samaria Church in Charles City County?

Much of the conflict between utilities and conservationists stems from regulators’ inability to value intangible assets that loom large in nearly every project, thus making it impractical for utilities to pay meaningful compensation. Dominion’s proposal is significant because it attempts to offset the adverse visual impact on Jamestown-area historical resources by funding the creation of non-visual benefits.

Both utility executives and their foes acknowledge the trade-offs between economic growth, jobs and profits on the one hand and hard-to-value historical, cultural and environmental assets. The great public policy question is what weight should be given to one and what weight to the other.

For years Virginia was a “a manufacturing powerhouse,” says Margaret Fowler, co-founder of the Save the James Alliance and one of the more outspoken foes of the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line project. “We were undeveloped, we needed power, we needed factories. Industrialization happened. At some point … we became sensitive to what we were losing — air quality, water quality, visual beauty. Has the pendulum swung too far? I don’t think so. But I understand the dilemma.” Continue reading

A Humble Proposal for Addressing Recurrent Flooding

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

By James A. Bacon

The recurrence of tidal/surge flooding in Hampton Roads has increased from 1.7 days of “nuisance” flooding yearly in 1960 to 7.3 days in 2o14, and with continued land subsidence and sea-level rise, the flooding will become even more common. So say the authors of “Building Resiliency in Response to Sea Level Rise and Recurrent Flooding: Comprehensive Planning in Hampton Roads,” published in the January 2016 issue of the Virginia News Letter.

Of all the region’s localities, according to the paper, the City of Portsmouth has moved the fastest to incorporate adaptive strategies into its comprehensive planning. The low-lying city of about 100,000 citizens is extremely vulnerable, with 38% of households lying within AE Flood Zones and approximately 50 miles of roadway located less than 4.5 feet above mean high water.

Last year the city interviewed nearly 2,000 households to ask about the frequency of flooding, flood-related loss, risk perception and mitigation behavior. Nearly half the residents surveyed reported being unable to get in or our of their neighborhoods in the past year due to flooding; more than a quarter reported being unable to get to work. More than 18% report suffering some form of damage to vehicles.

“There is strong perception among residents that future economic opportunities will be curtailed by changing sea levels; this view is even more strongly held by residents who experience difficulty getting in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood,” the authors write. “About 30 percent of residents agree that flooding specifically has negatively impacted the value of their homes.”

The authors are less clear about what can be done. They allude to three broad strategies for dealing with flooding: retreat, protection and accommodation. Retreat might entail restricting development in low-lying areas. Protection might include sea walls, living shorelines, improvement storm water drains, better street drainage or ditch maintenance. Accommodation might mean accepting inconvenience, disruption and property loss as the “new normal.” But the paper provides little guidance as to when and where these strategies might be appropriate or how they might be paid for.

Bacon’s bottom line: The authors note that households can adapt by installing pumps and drains, relocating HVA systems or buying higher-riding automobiles. But, other than relocating their residences to higher land, there doesn’t seem much else that individual households can do to protect themselves. Some kind of collective action is necessary.

Here’s the problem: In some areas, improvements will be too costly. In others, the real estate is of such low value, it’s not worth saving even at modest cost. But if local governments spend money on one neighborhood, every other neighborhood in the political jurisdiction will want their piece of the pie. And why not? Their residents pay taxes, too.

hot_spots

Flooding hot spots in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter.

Here’s an idea I throw out for discussion: Create community development authorities that encompass those areas (such as the yellow-red islands shown in map of Portsmouth to the right) that are most prone to flooding. A flood-mitigation plan is developed for each district, with improvements to be paid for with taxes raised from property owners in that district. Then put it to a vote of the residents of the district. Let those closest to the situation weigh the costs (a higher tax) versus the benefits (less property damage, flood-free streets, etc.) and decide for themselves.

The result would be a public-improvement plan more tightly aligned with the local circumstances and less vulnerable to political log-rolling than anything a city-wide effort could pull off and far easier to sell politically.

Clash of Competing Values

chickahominy_route

Map 1: Subdivisions and recreation areas. Proposed Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek transmission line route. (Click for image.)

Virginians need pipelines and transmission lines to keep the economy humming. But we also value our historical, cultural and historical heritage. The trade-offs are getting harder and harder.

by James A. Bacon

In the 1970s engineers at Dominion Virginia Power envisioned the need to increase the supply of electric power to the Virginia Peninsula one day. The logical course of action at the time seemed to be hooking into a 500 kV substation north of the James River in Charles City County, skirting Williamsburg, and plugging into a York County switching station where the power could be stepped down to lower voltages. To secure the route, the company proactively procured easements the entire length. It seemed an example of far-sighted planning.

When the Environmental Protection Agency enacted new toxic-emission standards earlier this decade that would compel Dominion to shut down its Yorktown coal-fired power plants, the company dusted off plans to import electricity from outside the Peninsula. However, taking a close look at the route, Courtney Fisher, an electric transmission siting and permitting specialist, found that many things had changed since the 1970s. Developers had built subdivisions right up to the easement. Environmental laws had became stricter, creating protections for wetlands and waterways. Government agencies had created classes of protected land, such as parks, conservation districts and agricultural/forestal districts. Private landowners had set up conservation easements. Society as a whole placed greater value upon scenic vistas and cultural resources like churches, battlefields, cemeteries and Indian settlements.

Even though Dominion owned the right of way, it didn’t take many public hearings to realize that building a high-voltage transmission line along that route would be a public relations disaster. The 38-mile line would cross 28 subdivisions and 300 parcels, leaving 1,129 residences within 500 feet of the line.

“The easement was purchased but the land was never cleared,” Fisher said. “Through the years, people bought houses. Their plats should have showed the easements. Some showed our transmission line easements and some did not. In either case, a line on a piece of paper is very different from the reality.”

Making matters worse, the transmission line would cut through 21 miles of forest land, requiring the clearing of 420 acres of trees, and it would affect 253 acres of wetland and forested wetlands. A crossing over the Chickahominy River would disrupt views to one of the most pristine stretches of river in eastern Virginia. To top it all off, the Chickahominy Indian tribe expressed concerns about the proximity of the line to its lands.

The route would have been so disruptive that Dominion decided to push an alternative, the 7.4-mile Surry-Skiffes Creek route across a historic stretch of the James River, arousing the wrath of conservationists and preservationists in the Williamsburg area and around the state.  As controversial as that proposed route has proven to be, Dominion believes the Chickahominy route would have been worse.

When it comes to picking a route, sometimes there are only painful choices, says Fisher. “We know we can’t please everyone, but we strive to minimize overall impacts.”

As the United States adapts to a post-coal era of more solar, wind and natural gas, major energy corporations are actively seeking to acquire right of way for two major gas pipelines and build several electric transmission lines in Virginia, with more projects waiting in the wings. The problem is that more places on the map are designated off-limits than ever before.

Route of the Williams Companies' Transco pipeline, built around 1950.

Route of the Williams Companies’ Transco pipeline, built circa 1950.

Building gas and electric lines was a lot easier a half century ago when projects disturbed little more than farm and woodlands. Witness the Transco pipeline built through Virginia around 1950 in a straight line. For purposes of acquiring right of way, it was a straightforward proposition to calculate the loss of economic value to a farm or a timber stand to compensate a landowner for an easement across his land.

Since then, suburban sprawl has smeared low-density subdivisions across vast swaths of the landscape, while changing societal values have placed a priority on preserving Virginia’s cultural, historical and environmental resources. Try assigning an economic value to a family cemetery, an expanse of marsh grass or the bucolic view from a vineyard.

Gas and electric companies follow a standard procedure when plotting routes for pipelines and transmission lines. The preliminary step is to plot the most economical path from Point A to Point B, using detailed maps identifying terrain features as well as environmental, historical and cultural assets in the path. Within the budget constraints of the project, they are willing to zig and zag to avoid sensitive locations. If it is impractical to steer around a subdivision, wetlands or scenic vista, utility companies endeavor to minimize the impact — whether drilling through mountains, in the case of pipelines, employing low-glare materials to build a transmission line, or utilizing any number of other strategies. Then begins the open houses and meetings with affected landowners, federal and state agencies and other interested parties to refine the proposed routes further.

A particularly thorny set of issues revolves around how much money utilities should spend in order to avoid or mitigate these conflicts. If a pipeline or transmission line diminishes viewsheds and destroys economic value, how much of that cost should be shifted to rate payers and how much should be absorbed by the property owner? And what happens if a historic, cultural or environmental asset is priceless? Bacon’s Rebellion will explore those issues in an upcoming article.

However those issues are decided, Virginia will be seeing more of these conflicts. To show how challenging it can be to plot a route, Bacon’s Rebellion sat down with Fisher to discuss the challenges posed by the Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek route and with Robert M. Bisha, director-environmental business for Dominion Resources, to walk through the major choke points in the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Continue reading

Five-Year Dominion Spending to Upgrade Grid

Dominion's five-year spending priority: upgrading the grid.

Dominion’s five-year spending priority: upgrading the grid.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power plans $9.5 billion in capital expenditures through 2020, almost two-thirds of which will go to upgrading the company’s transmission lines, substations and distribution system. Other priorities include $700 million for new solar generation and, if approved by the State Corporation Commission, additional funds for undergrounding vulnerable distribution lines.

“We know our customers expect high reliability, clean energy and reasonable rates,” said Robert M. Blue, DVP president in a statement. “We focus on that in everything we do, from building new infrastructure to day-to-day maintenance and fast storm response.”

The capital spending, which will average nearly $2 billion a year, represents a major step-up from the past seven years in which Dominion spent $8 billion, much of it for environmental control equipment to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions of toxic chemicals.

Dominion has the fastest-growing demand for electricity of any utility in PJM Interconnection, which manages wholesale markets and the reliability of the regional electric grid for a 13-state region plus the District of Columbia. The company added 430,000 customers in the past decade, the press release states. Dominion also serves an increasing number of energy-intensive date centers in Northern Virginia.

“Our modern way of life requires lots of energy – and that means infrastructure,” Blue said. “To keep up with energy demand and meet new clean air requirements, Dominion Virginia Power and its parent company are constantly building everything from power stations to power lines, substations to natural gas pipelines.”

Of the $9.5 billion in planned expenditures, Dominion proposes to allocate $3.6 billion for transmission lines and substations, $2.4 billion for its distribution system, and $3.5 billion for new generation and environmental improvements.

While policy makers tend to focus mostly on electric rates and environmental impact, Dominion also emphasizes the reliability of the electric grid. Blue said that reliability, measured by minutes lost due to routine service disruptions, has improved 25% since 2008. “Our reliability in 2015 was 98.8%, which translates into approximately 2 hours of outage time per customer over the whole year.” (Reliability metrics do not take into account outages from major storms.)

Dominion’s proposal to run power lines underground would focus on the most outage-prone tap lines. The idea is to enable electric power to be restored more quickly to customers in the event of a hurricane, ice storm or other major weather-related disruption, which historically has hit the state on average every couple of years.

Speaking of Land-Intensive Solar Plants…

solar_aerialsIn remarks made at a business conference Friday, CEO Thomas F. Farrell II noted how much land solar panels consume. As paraphrased by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said:

A solar project that Dominion hopes to build near Culpeper would occupy 125 acres of land and power about 5,000 houses — about 30 percent of the time. By contrast, a natural gas plant in Warren County sits on 39 acres and can power 335,000 houses — about 80 percent of the time.

Writing in a Sunday op-ed pieceT-D columnist Bart Hinkle extrapolated from Farrell’s numbers: “Dominion can generate more than 24,000 megawatts of power all together. To get that from solar power alone would require more than 1,000 square miles of solar panels.”

Assuming Hinkle’s got his numbers right,  that’s roughly equivalent to putting Chesterfield County, Henrico County, the City of Richmond and half of Hanover County under solar panels in order to supply the state’s electricity needs. That’s a serious amount of real estate.

In all fairness, Hinkle’s example is somewhat extreme: No one is calling to convert 100% of Virginia’s electric power to solar. Indeed, Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard sets a voluntary goal of only 15% for the state’s electric power to come from renewable sources, which also includes wind and biomass. And the state energy plan also calls for energy conservation as an alternative to building new generating capacity. But the example dramatizes how much land Virginia will have to dedicate to solar in order to make meaningful progress toward renewable energy goals.

It might be worth debating the pros and cons of converting thousands of acres of land to solar. We should discuss the environmental impact — what kind of wildlife would prosper in fields of solar panels? What would the visual impact be on habitat does fields of solar panels make? How do we minimize the adverse visual and environmental impacts?

I’m serious, solar panels could become one of Virginia’s most extensive land uses. This is something we need to start thinking about.

Update: Commenters have made the valid point that comparing the footprint of solar facilities to that of, say, a natural gas -fired generator is not fair unless it takes into account the right-of-way gas required for the pipeline that serves the gas plant, not to mention the gas storage and drilling facilities associated with the generator. Also, considerable solar capacity could be installed on rooftops.

— JAB