Category Archives: Environment

Enviros Hail Proposed Regs for Greensville Plant

Environmental groups are cheering tough new restrictions in the draft air permit for Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed natural gas-fired power plant in Greensville County.

If approved by the state Air Pollution Control Board, the regulations would tighten protective standards for carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, methane, and particulate matter. Dominion also would have to conduct additional testing to prevent formaldehyde pollution and methane leakage.

“The impacts of this decision could ripple through the energy sector,” said Evan Johns, staff attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates in a press release. “By strengthening efficiency requirements, this permit will serve as the new benchmark against which all similar Clean Air Act permits must be measured in the future.”

Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter and Appalachian Voices now are pushing to apply the same standards to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Update: When contacted late this morning, Dominion officials said they had just received a copy of the draft and had not had a chance to review it.


Coal Ash to Cold Cash?

There's gold in them thar ponds! Well, not gold, but rare earth elements.

There’s gold in them thar ponds! Well, not gold, but rare earth elements.

by James A. Bacon

A Duke University study of coal ash has found that the mineral residue from coal combustion contains high concentrations of valuable rare-earth elements neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium and erbium used in uses as varied as cell phones, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lighting, air pollution controls, and night-vision goggles.

Demand for the exotic elements has exploded in recent years. While no rarer than metals such as chromium, nickel or zinc in the earth’s surface, they are rarely found in extractable concentrations. In 2010 China, which produced 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, restricted exports, sending prices shooting higher and prompting a search for alternate sources of supply.

“The Department of Energy is investing $20 million into research on extraction technologies for coal wastes, and there is literally billions of dollars’ worth of rare earth elements contained in our nation’s coal ash,” said Heileen Hsu-Kim, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke, as quoted in Science Daily.

Researchers studied coal ash samples from power plants located mostly in the Midwest that burn coal sources from all over the country. Analysis showed that ash collected from the Appalachian Mountains has the highest concentration of rare earth elements at 591 parts per billion. However, Appalachian ash is harder to extract, perhaps because it is more likely to be encapsulated within a glassy matrix of aluminum silicates.

“The reagents we used are probably too expensive to use on an industrial scale, but there are many similar chemicals,” said Hsu-Kim. “The trick will be exploring our options and developing technologies to drive the costs down. That way we can tap into this vast resource that is currently just sitting around in disposal ponds.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The next big environmental debate over coal ash is over how to dispose of the ash once it is de-watered. Dominion Virginia Power and many other power companies say it is cheaper to consolidate the material in compounds capped to prevent rainwater from percolating through. But environmentalists would like to see the coal ash disposed in landfills with heavy plastic lining that eliminates any risk of groundwater contamination.

Will the Duke University finding change power company calculations? If a given power station’s coal ash potentially contained a hundred million dollars worth of rare earth metals, would a power company be more likely to hang on to the material for future extraction? Who knows — the world works in strange and unpredictable ways.

A Major Setback for Virginia OffShore Wind

We won't be seeing any of these off the Virginia coast any time soon.

We won’t be seeing any of these off the Virginia coast any time soon.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has withdrawn $40 million in funding from the Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project (VOWTAP), dealing a major blow to plans to build two experiment wind turbines off the Virginia coast and jeopardizing the prospect of major offshore wind development in the foreseeable future.

Dominion Virginia Power had hoped to build turbines incorporating features capable of withstanding Category 3 hurricane winds, considerably stronger than those faced by wind farms in Europe. Demonstrating the viability of the technology would reduce a major element of risk and, hence, the cost of financing construction of a large-scale wind farm capable of supplying hundreds of thousands of homes.

Dominion’s early estimate to build the two turbines was $230 million, which would generate enough power to supply 3,000 homes. The first solicitation yielded a bid of $375 million. Subsequent efforts to squeeze costs out of the project resulted in bids ranging from about $300 million to $380 million. Dominion has said that even a cost as low as $230 million would be a challenge to win approval from the State Corporation Commission. The cost per kilowatt hour for electricity would be astronomically high compared to other energy sources, and the project was justifiable only as a proof-of-concept opening the way for cheaper, large-scale wind development.

The loss of DOE’s $40 million project puts the VOWTAP project that much further out of reach.

“Naturally, we are disappointed in the DOE’s decision because we still believe that offshore wind has a great potential to deliver clean, renewable energy to Virginia,” said Mary C. Doswell, senior vice president‒Dominion Energy Solutions in a press release. “However, we also recognize the unique regulatory and cost challenges involved in our project and appreciate the DOE’s desire to support other projects that may have an earlier opportunity for fruition.”

DOE made its decision after Dominion could not guarantee an in-service date for the project earlier than 2020, according to Doswell. The inability to get firm construction contracts and the increasing complexities of gaining regulatory approval for energy infrastructure projects have made it impossible for Dominion to guarantee an earlier date.

“This project is a first in many ways,” Doswell said. “As such, you need to account for many variables when attempting to lock in on a date with any degree of certainty.”

Dominion said it would consult with other VOWTAP stakeholders on how to proceed.

Swapping Easements

This Dominion map submitted to the VOF shows the location of conservation easements in the Augusta-Bath-Highland area (parcels outlined in red), and the location of the Hayfield Farm where Dominion would create an easement and turn over to the VOF. (Click for larger image.)

This Dominion map submitted to the VOF shows the location of conservation easements in the Augusta-Bath-Highland area (parcels outlined in red), and the location of the Hayfield Farm where Dominion would create an easement and turn over to the VOF. (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has proposed to donate two parcels totaling nearly 1,200 acres to offset the intrusion of its proposed 600-mile pipeline onto lands protected by conservation easements.

In a proposal made to the Virginia Outdoor Foundation (VOF), which holds the conservation easements, Dominion would donate the land and easements for a 1,100-acre parcel and and 85-acre parcel to offset the conversion of 68 acres of protected open space on ten different easement-protected parcels in Bath, Highland and Nelson Counties. The donations would create a “mitigation ratio” of 16 to 1 in one case and 20 to in the other, according to Robert Hare, senior business development manager with Dominion.

Dominion presented its proposals Thursday to VOF’s Energy & Infrastructure Committee. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which proposes to build an interstate transmission line through Virginia, also described a plan to offset an easement in Montgomery County that it wants to route its pipeline through. The ACP proposals are expected to be reviewed by the full VOF board next month.

The stakes are potentially momentous for the governance of conservation easements in Virginia. In its entire 50-year history, VOF has received only 14 “conversion-diversion” requests to alter easements, which landowners grant in order to protect scenic, environmental, cultural or historical resources on their property in perpetuity. Most conversions involved slivers of land needed for public purposes such as widening a road, adding a turning lane for a school or extending water-sewer lines. In every case, the requests were supported by the local governments involved. The pipeline cases are very different. They are proposed by for-profit utilities, they would be far more intrusive, and they are all opposed by the respective local governments.

Conservation easements are protected by state law, and they are hard to bust using eminent domain under state law. But Dominion’s interstate pipeline is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In the event of a conflict, it is unknown whether federal or state law would prevail because no case has been tested in the courts.

VOF board members find themselves between a rock and a hard place, said Tom Slater, chairman of the energy and infrastructure committee. A Richmond attorney, he spends weekends tending to 110 Angus cows on a Loudoun County farm that his family has owned since the 1840s. Board members are passionate about conservation and sympathetic to landowners who entrusted their easements to the VOF, he said. “We want to enforce state law.” At the same time, he added, they are cognizant that state law could be “pre-empted” by federal law.

Under FERC guidelines, pipeline companies must go through an exhaustive process of working with state agencies to avoid or mitigate intrusions upon historical, cultural and environmental resources. Virginia is unique in having an entity like the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds 3,835 easements totaling more than 750,000 acres. While VOF’s mission is to conserve viewsheds, wildlife habitat and other resources, it is also enjoined by state law to work with railroads, utilities, the Virginia Department of Transportation and other entities citing a public-need justification for infringing on the easements.

Dominion has made literally hundreds of adjustments to its proposed route. The resulting zigs and zags around residential areas and land with historical, cultural or environmental value have increased the pipeline length from an estimated 550 miles to 600 miles.

An early version of the route had managed to avoid 23 VOF easements, Hare told the VOF committee. However, when the U.S. Forest Service wrote a letter to FERC in January stating that the pipeline would be “incompatible” with the protection of rare salamanders and other species in Virginia and West Virginia national forests, Dominion had to re-route 95 miles of the line. With severely constrained options, the new route ran through 10 VOF-protected parcels.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) hasn’t faced the same routing challenges as ACP, but it still found itself unable to avoid one easement. The company has asked the VOF if it could mitigate the impact of crossing that parcel, as well as allowing a temporary construction-access road, by purchasing land elsewhere and turning over the easement to VOF. In the meantime, MVP is working on a work-around that may allow it to withdraw its request, said Lindsey Hesch, senior environmental specialist.

Dominion and MVP have shown “good faith” in trying to route their pipelines around conservation easements, said Slater, the committee chair. “But these land swaps are a first — on a scale way beyond anything we’ve experienced before.” Continue reading

Solar Co-Ops: Competing through Innovation

solar_installationby James A. Bacon

Solar co-ops are popping up all around Virginia, as they are around the country. The concept is simple: Individuals who want to install solar power on their houses band together to select a single contractor to install their solar systems, saving up to 20% to 30%.

The Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods (VA SUN) website lists open co-ops in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Farmville and closed co-ops in nine other Virginia locations.

In an era of fast-improving solar efficiency and near-zero interest rates, the economics of residential solar look attractive. VA SUN advises that nine- to twelve-year paybacks (including the 30% federal tax credit) are typical. That implies a relatively low-risk return on investment in the neighborhood of 7% to 9%, which is better than most people can get parking their money in bank CDs or U.S. Treasuries and a lot less risky than investing in the stock market.

Bacon’s bottom line: While I’m skeptical of promoting solar energy production in Virginia through mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards, I’m a big fan of innovators who improve the economics of solar and drive down the cost of installation. I could see myself giving serious thought to installing solar on my own house. (A decisive factor for me would be determining how many trees I’d have to cut down. Tree-cutting services charge charge a small fortune!)

Residential solar accounts for such a small percentage of the electric-generating capacity in Virginia that it doesn’t pose a problem for the stability and reliability of the electric grid. Yet. That could change as rooftop-solar becomes more ubiquitous. Solar homeowners and businesses like selling surplus electricity into the electric grid, and they like drawing upon the grid when the sun isn’t shining. They also like not paying a fair share of the cost of maintaining the grid that guarantees them a 24/7 supply of electricity. At some point rooftop solar could extend to so many customers that would undermine the financial integrity of the electric grid.

We’re nowhere near that point now, but we could get there. It would be prudent to start thinking now about what a next-generation grid capable of accommodating hundreds of thousands of solar rooftops would look like, and what would be reasonable for solar households to pay to support it.


You Want Studies? We’ve Got Studies!

The latest news in the Bacon’s Rebellion in-box…

Coal ash. Resource International, an engineering and consulting firm hired by Prince William County, has concluded that lead found in well water near the Possum Creek Power Station  has no connection to the coal ash ponds nearby. Concludes the study:

The test results for the sample collected from the wells … appear typical of shallow wells in the Virginia Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions. Natural hydrogeologic processes do not allow for movement of shallow groundwater from the Possum Point Power Station toward the residences on Possum Point Road.  … Based on the foregoing, it is reasonable to conclude that the Dominion Ash Ponds do not represent a potential source in connection with lead or other constituents identified in the private well samples.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Meanwhile, a new study by Key-Log Economics, commissioned by foes of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimates that the total net-present-value cost to an eight-county region in Virginia and West Virginia would amount to between $8 billion and $9 billion. Annual costs in lost property value and lost ecosystem service value would range between $119 million and $131 million yearly.

The same group had estimated in an earlier study that the annual cost of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run around $141 million annually.


Next Front in the Coal Ash War: Groundwater Testing

water_testingby James A. Bacon

Brian West, whose property backs up the Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station, has had his well water tested three times in the past few months. He got three very different results, leaving him wondering how safe the water is to drink.

The first test, conducted by the Virginia Department of Health, found lead, a metal commonly associated with coal ash, to be safely within Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for drinking water: 3 parts per billion, a fraction of the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. However, a second test commissioned by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network found a lead concentration of 549 parts per billion. A third test by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program logged lead of 120 parts per billion, lower but still over the limit.

Maybe the water is safe, maybe it isn’t. Needless to say, West isn’t taking any chances — he’s not drinking the water anymore.

The widely divergent test results, reported in an excellent article by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, raise critical questions as Dominion seeks Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permits to close its coal ash ponds at Possums Point and the Bremo Power Station.

Like other electric power companies, Dominion faces a federal mandate to shut down coal ash ponds in a two-step process. Dominion has received DEQ permits to de-water the ponds, a roughly year-long procedure it has commenced at both facilities. The next step is determining what to do with the dry coal ash. Dominion wants to impound it locally, capping it with impermeable material to prevent rain water from seeping through and getting contaminated. But environmental groups, arguing that the caps don’t prevent the leeching of compounds into ground water, insist that Dominion ship the ash to lined landfills. Dominion responds that such a solution could cost rate payers upward of $3 billion.

The sparring over well water tests shows how much uncertainty reigns. One might think that testing water for toxic levels of contaminants would be a straight-forward task. But West’s experience suggests that testing is anything but simple. Results may vary depending upon the methodology used, Dwayne Roadcap ta health department director, told the Times-Dispatch. Was the water sample taken as a “first draw” or after purging the water from the system? What was the sample’s chain of custody? It was not clear from the article how the Department of Health’s methodology might have differed from the Potomac Riverkeepers’.

A related question is whether or the lead in West’s well water originated from Dominion’s coal ash ponds. The Department of Health suggested that the lead might have come from West’s pipes. West rejected that possibility. But if West’s groundwater had been contaminated by the coal ash, would it not have been contaminated by other heavy metals as well? The article makes no mention of cobalt, cadmium, mercury or other substances commonly associated with ash.

Another question is how rapidly groundwater migrates through the proposed coal-ash pits and how fast contamination can spread through the water table. Dominion argues that the movement is very slow, that frequent testing on the perimeter can spot any build-up, and that the company can intercept the water flow by digging ditches, extracting the water and then treating it. Citing tests that indicate coal-ash contamination in Quantico Creek, riverkeeper Dean Naujoks doesn’t trust Dominion to do the job. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which provides legal representation to the Riverkeepers, says it is “still looking into whether there’s a connection between coal ash and the contamination at wells in Possum Point.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If environmentalists can’t persuade DEQ to force Dominion to truck the coal ash to landfills, expect them to fight for the toughest possible water testing requirements, holding out for a strict methodology and independent, third-party testing whose objectivity is beyond reproach. Expect Dominion to agree to almost any testing and mitigation regime that allows the company to avoid the $3 billion expense of shipping coal ash in thousands of truck trips along narrow roads past peoples’ houses to landfills dozens of miles away.