Category Archives: Environment

Clean Power Plan: What Comes Next?

by James A. Bacon

I may be like the proverbial three-year-old playing with matches with this blog post, but as I decipher the Clean Power Plan, Virginia’s final CO2 emission goals should be fairly easy to attain — far easier than anyone was anticipating based upon the draft goals published last year.

According to the EPA’s “State at a Glance” document for Virginia, the Old Dominion can pick from one of two ways to determine its CO2 emission goals — pounds of CO2 emitted per megawatt of electric power generated or total tons of CO2 released by the electric power system. Let’s look at each in turn.

First, pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt of energy produced:


Virginia is already on track for major CO2 reductions thanks to the retirement of several coal- and oil-fired power plants implemented in response to the EPA’s previous mandated reductions of toxic emissions. As the EPA “State at a Glance” profile of Virginia indicates, the state is projected to cut CO2 emissions from 1,477 pounds in 2012 to 959 pounds per megawatt-hour generated in 2020. That reduction exceeds EPA goals through 2029, and it falls short of the final 2030 goal by only 25 pounds, or 2.6%!

In other words, assuming they stay on their current course, Virginia’s power companies will have another ten years to devise a 2.6% reduction in carbon intensity over what they’re already planning.

Second, total CO2 emissions (in short tons):


These goals would not require Virginia to make any changes at all. Indeed, the final 2030 goal for CO2 emissions is the same as the 2012 level! If Virginia’s power companies hew to current projections, they will exceed the final 2030 goal without any changes! If Virginia adopts this metric, the state won’t have to modify its electricity policy at all. So much for pushing through scads of new solar and wind plants!

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of key players in the Virginia debate got caught flat-footed. An hour after President Obama formally rolled out the plan, General Assembly Republicans issued a statement citing a $6 billion State Corporation Commission cost estimate, based upon the cost of achieving the far tougher draft goals,  in criticism of the plan. Stated House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford:

The E.P.A. rule released today is not only another example of an overreaching federal government, but more importantly it will drive up energy costs for hardworking Virginians and further damage our already struggling economy.

Oh, really?

Environmentalists seemed to be caught equally off guard. The Southern Environmental Law Center issued a press release just before Obama’s speech praising the plan for forcing CO2 cuts nationally. Senior Attorney Frank Rambo, leader of the organization’s Clean Energy and Air program, released the following statement regarding the regional impact:

The release of the Clean Power Plan today is a milestone event for the country, but for states in the Southeast the real work now begins. We need to make smart choices about how we can meet these targets, which will improve public health by reducing pollution while also providing the opportunity for new jobs through clean energy investments.

Real work? What real work?

Even today, environmentalists had not absorbed the significance of the new target. In a fund-raising letter, the League of Conservation Voters referred to the Clean Air Act as “good news here in Virginia.”

I can’t imagine that Virginia environmentalists will be happy when it sinks in that modified targets lock the status quo into place.

The big question at this point is which metric does Virginia choose? I’m not sure who does the choosing, but I would expect environmental groups to lobby for the “rate” metric, which requires at least modicum of additional tightening for Virginia, and I would expect the McAuliffe administration, which has a stated goal of fighting climate change, to go along because it will cause little economic pain. However, unless closer analysis by the experts finds otherwise — and I’m totally open to the possibility that I may be overlooking something — it appears that Virginia  has enacted nearly all of the changes it needs.

Update: I stand corrected. The final CO2 emission targets represent a 37% reduction for Virginia. For details, see “Yes, Virginia, the EPA Is Still Cracking Down on You.” I also take back the snarky things I said about Bill Howell’s quote and Frank Rambo’s quote. Sorry, guys, I was wrong.

EPA Cuts Virginia Slack with New CO2 Emission Targets

dodging_bulletby James A. Bacon

Virginia dodged a bullet today: In final rules for its Clean Power Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significantly scaled back  its carbon intensity goals for Virginia’s electric power sector. The final rule establishes an interim goal of 1,047 pounds per megawatt hour of electricity produced for the period 2022-2030. That compares to the interim goal of 884 pounds set for Virginia in the initial goal proposed last year.

Dominion Virginia Power, the State Corporation Commission and the McAuliffe administration all argued that the goals gave insufficient recognition to progress Virginia had made in recent years in driving down the carbon intensity of its electric power system. The SCC had estimated that implementation of the rules would cost $6 billion for Dominion alone, not including the impact on Appalachian Power Co. or Virginia’s electric cooperatives.

The roll-back represents a significant victory for Governor Terry McAuliffe, who had lobbied EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to give consideration to Virginia’s previous progress in replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, which, though a fossil fuel, releases less CO2 per unit of electricity generated than does coal. Virginia has reduced CO2 emissions 16% since 2008, according to the EPA’s own data.

The new EPA guidelines were well received by Virginia’s largest electric utility. “The compliance targets for Virginia have moved in a positive direction that fairly recognizes the role of natural gas generation in reducing emissions,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, Dominion CEO in a prepared statement. “I commend Administrator McCarthy for making critical changes to the proposed rule.”

In remarks today, President Barack Obama described the Clean Power Plan as “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against Climate Change.” The plan, he says, is aimed at ending “the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants.”

Environmental groups were supportive of the final rules. “The reality is that the strategies to meet the Clean Power Plan reflect the energy shift already under way in our states: We’re embracing smarter, cleaner, cheaper energy options that would be happening with or without this plan,” said Frank Rambo, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “As a result, our states are well-positioned to meet these reasonable and inevitable pollution reduction targets.”

Appalachian Power Company is still reviewing the 1,600-page rule, so it cannot yet say whether it is reasonable or not. Extending the initial compliance target to 2022 is a “positive,” said John E. Shelpelwich in the company’s corporate communications office, but “simply moving the date forward a few years won’t be enough to address the negative reliability impacts if the initial reduction targets are still too stringent. … Any plan to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be accompanied by a thorough assessment of the impact on the electric grid.”

The new, less draconian CO2 emissions for Virginians likely means that electric rates will not jump as much as the SCC had previously anticipated, if they rise at all. As the SELC and other environmental groups frequently noted, Dominion was already on track to meeting 80% of the draft goals, thanks to major investments the company had made to meet a previous round of EPA rules designed to reduce toxic emissions. While some states fought those rules, Virginia complied by shutting down, or scheduling the shutdown, of several coal- and oil-powered electric generating units and building cleaner gas-fired units in their place.

“The final rule is complex and will require further study,” stated a Dominion press release, but the company is encouraged by the easier CO2 emission targets and the extra time given to achieve them. Dominion also stated that it was “pleased” that the final EPA rule recognized the environmental benefits of natural gas and its ability to backup intermittent renewable fuels such as sun and wind. The company’s main reservation: The rule “falls short” in acknowledging the value of zero carbon-emitting nuclear generation.

Note: This article has been updated to include a response from Appalachian Power Co.

The Democratization of Data

Map showing green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Map showing density of green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, is studying how the redevelopment of Tysons affects the pedestrian experience. The first step is collecting data. Accordingly, he is dispatching students equipped with sensors, wearable cameras and smartphone apps to monitor temperature, light levels, green cover, noise pollution and carbon monoxide emissions in ever nook and cranny of the what he calls the “archetypal American edge city.”

The goal of Fairfax County planners is to transform the autocentric mix of offices, shopping malls and plate-of-spaghetti road network from the epitome of suburban sprawl into a smart-growth poster of mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streets.


Map showing intensity of illumination.

“Tysons Corner is on the forefront of transforming suburban places into more urban places and all that entails,” says Mondscheinin an article published in UVa Today. “For city and urban planners, it is exciting, because if we densify suburbs we could reduce driving and emissions, provide more housing and make transit, walking and biking easier and more pleasant – hopefully improving public and environmental health. The Tysons Corner project embodies all of these wonderful goals.”

The data collected by students will provide on-the-ground measures of the pedestrian experience as Tysons evolves.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Mondschein says other communities can do the same thing. “With devices like these, communities could self-organize and self-initiate studies that can show what they need in an objective manner, with hard data. That can be arguably more persuasive when speaking to policymakers, fundraisers and politicians.”

(Hat tip: John Blair)


Conserving Energy, Helping the Poor


Marjorie Wilson

by James A. Bacon

Marjorie Wilson has lived in the same 1,000-square-foot bungalow on Texas Street in the City of Richmond since 1953. Two sons and a grand-daughter share the residence with her but it isn’t easy keeping up with the bills, including the electric bill, which averages about $120 per month.

“We’d talked about insulating the attic years ago,” says daughter Diane Campbell, who helps look after her mother. But they never found the money to get the job done.


Project:HOMES volunteers pump insulation into the walls of the Wilsons’ house.

The family hit an energy conservation bonanza this year, though, when it qualified for improvements by Project:HOMES, a non-profit enterprise that makes home improvements for the poor, elderly and disabled throughout Central Virginia. Combining federal weatherization money, Dominion Virginia Power EnergyShare funds and volunteer labor, Project:HOMES was able to insulate the attic and walls, plug air-infiltration gaps, wrap the hot water heater and pipes and install LED lights for about $4,000, says CEO Lee Householder.

The goal is to shave 30% off the Wilsons’ electric bill. If the project meets expectations, that will amount to savings of about $40 per month on average or $480 per year. That’s a pretty good return on a $4,000 investment.

The Wilsons’ house was featured yesterday in one of three events held around the state marking the re-launch of Dominion’s EnergyShare program. The Richmond event was attended by Dominion Virginia Power President Paul Koonce and Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. Governor Terry McAuliffe was the headliner at the Northern Virginia event, while Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam led off in Hampton Roads. The McAuliffe administration had pushed hard for an expansion of EnergyShare this spring when lawmakers crafted legislation in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s crackdown on CO2 emissions from electric power plants.

Dominion has committed to spend $57 million on the program over the next five years, including $15 million that will be recouped from rate payers and $42 million to be contributed by the company itself. The $42 million, in effect, will come from shareholders of parent company Dominion Resources, said Katharine M. Bond, director of public policy. Those sums do not include additional funds contributed by Dominion customers, employees and others.

The program, said Koonce in remarks at the Richmond event, is the result of “a bipartisan effort to expand energy efficiency.” There is a broad political consensus that Virginia will have to aggressively pursue energy conservation in order to meet the strict CO2 emission goals of the Clean Power Plan.

There has been considerable debate about the merits of weatherization programs since the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus plan. Government auditors found the $5 billion lavished on weatherization was riddled with waste and fraud. And in Dominion’s own analysis of alternatives for CO2 reduction, the “Income and and Age Qualifying Home Improvement Program” was judged to have the second highest cost per megawatt hour, exceeded only by off-shore wind energy. The cost of $236 per megawatt hour compares to the voltage conservation program, costing $38 per megawatt hour, or the residential appliance recycling program, costing $55 per megawatt hour, according to Dominion’s 2015 Integrated Resource Plan.

However, EnergyShare is more than a conservation program. It is designed to help the poor, elderly and disabled pay their electric bills, which explains its broad political appeal.

In its earlier incarnation, EnergyShare helped Virginians keep the lights on and also paid for weatherization. The big design change in the program is linking financial assistance with weatherization. If a customer faces a choice between paying an electric bill or a medical bill, the problem likely is not a one-time event; it is probably a chronic one. Weatherization creates a permanent reduction in a poor family’s electric bill. “That linkage has not been part of the equation before,” says Bond. Continue reading

The Bay Needs More than a Pollution Diet

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

by Carol J. Bova

The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set limits on the amount of pollution and sediment reaching the Chesapeake Bay through TMDLs, Total Maximum Daily Loads. TMDL plans are sometimes referred to as a “pollution diet.” The 3-judge panel said, “The Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require sacrifice by many, but that is a consequence of the tremendous effort it will take to restore health to the Bay….” (Opinion of the Court, Case No, 13-4079, July 6, 2015.)

The ruling and the legal arguments, for and against, failed to recognize that TMDL pollution limits alone cannot restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay or of the streams, rivers and smaller bays connecting to it.

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark R. Herring said in his July 6 news release, “The most promising plan for Bay restoration was under attack from out of state special interests and I couldn’t let that go unanswered.” But the Attorney General isn’t acknowledging that TMDL plans are only part of the answer and can’t restore the Bay.

TMDLs are determined from computer models. Existing levels of pollutants in the waterways are determined through monitoring. Pollutant levels above the maximum the waters can tolerate without exceeding water quality standards are divided among the potential sources. Those sources must then attempt to meet the reduction targets.

Sounds simple and straightforward, but computer models are only as good as the information input into them. At best, they’re a reasonable estimate. At worst, they attribute the pollution to the wrong sources, or in the wrong quantities, or miss factors related to damaged ecosystems, factors like stream flow.

Stream flow is akin to a Goldilocks story with too much, too little or just right rates. A natural rate of flow is the just right part. Flow that’s too fast, as in the well-known and litigated Accotink Creek situation, scours too much material from stream banks and the streambed and deposits that sediment downstream. (Virginia’s former Attorney General won that case against the EPA for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), with the court ruling the EPA can regulate pollutants like sediment, but not conditions like stream flow rate that erode and move sediment downstream where it causes a problem.)

VDOT also creates the opposite condition, too little flow in streams that must cross under state roads or pass through state roadside ditches and culverts to reach receiving waters. This slowing or obstruction causes a different kind of sediment problem, one that results from lack of dissolved oxygen in the water. Impounded rainwater or streams lose oxygen. Without oxygen, beneficial bacteria that decompose dead plant matter die off. Partially decomposed matter accumulates, further blocking flow. This mucky sediment smothers aquatic plants and bottom-dwelling invertebrates, forces upstream water to back up, and deprives downstream waters of the dissolved oxygen every living thing in the Bay needs.

In Mathews County, the first hard-surfaced road the Commonwealth built interfered with stream flow in 1926-28—and still does there and across the county today. As the Accotink Creek case shows, VDOT impacts stream flow in other counties too.

The EPA can’t force VDOT to correct damaging stream flow conditions. DEQ (the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) can only issue new VDOT permits and has no enforcement power over prior VDOT stream impairments. The Attorney General’s office provides for the legal needs of state agencies, including protecting them from the consequences of prior bad decisions and practices.

Farmers and private citizens can observe TMDLs to the letter, but that won’t fix VDOT’s impacts and let streams flow without carrying excessive sediment or allow obstructed streams to deliver life-giving oxygen to truly restore the Bay. Article XI of the Virginia Constitution says, “…it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction.”

So, Attorney General Herring, if you believe in restoring the Chesapeake Bay, can you advise us how the Commonwealth is going to address VDOT’s impacts?

Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its roadside drainage ditches in Mathews County.

Zoning for Solar

transmission_scale_solarby William Marsh

Want to see more solar energy in Virginia? There many ways to tackle the challenge. One that typically gets overlooked is for local governments to amend their zoning ordinances to be friendlier to larger scale (transmission scale) solar generation of electricity.

Solar power can be generated either for private use on a property, through a net metering arrangement that allows for sale of small quantities of power to be sold to the electric grid, or through a large-scale array that dispatches electricity to transmission lines. The third use, transmission scale, is best suited for locations near existing transmission lines and substations where voltage exceeds 138 kilovolts. Typically, projects require an adjacent substation that raises electrical voltage to match the transmission line’s voltage. (Transmission lines are the wires suspended from tall towers that convey power from power plants, often across state boundaries, as opposed to the shorter, more ubiquitous power lines.)

The right kind of zoning ordinance can simplify the adoption of large-scale solar projects connected to the transmission grid. When Amazon Web Services recently announced plans to build a solar farm in Accomack County, the local zoning ordinance explicitly recognized solar power generation and provided a predictable permit approval process. Accomack is one of three counties, along with Northampton and Clarke County, that has amended its zoning ordinance in the past five years to accommodate transmission-scale solar.

Whether other local jurisdictions are prepared to permit similar transmission- scale solar is less clear. For example, in Loudoun County where I reside, a transmission-scale solar project is permitted only on land that is zoned general industry or heavy industrial use, where any transmission-scale energy project like coal, natural gas, or nuclear is allowed, even though solar generation produces power with less noise, pollution and other side effects than conventional power generation. When added to non-forested open land with gentle slopes, solar power has little if any effect on neighboring parcels, because neither noise nor pollution is generated.

When transmission-scale solar power is bundled with other transmission-scale resources in zoning ordinances, less land within a jurisdiction is deemed eligible for transmission-scale solar development. Potential solar developers endure less predictable, more cumbersome political level approvals from boards of supervisors. Solar developers also must also seek permits from the State Corporation Commission and PJM regional transmission organization, so local permits are not their only hurdle. But the hurdle in Virginia often is higher than it needs to be.

North Carolina has also recognized this hurdle. In December 2013, a diverse working group sponsored by the NC Sustainable Energy Association and North Carolina Solar Center published the “Template Solar Energy Development Ordinance for North Carolina.” The model ordinance provides text to fit smaller scale, residential scale solar approvals; community/commercial solar scale; and the larger, transmission-scale projects described here. Among other details, it addresses maximum suggested height of a ground-mounted module and minimum setbacks, or distances, from neighboring properties. The ordinance template is available to all interested North Carolina jurisdictions and was published after North Carolina had already surpassed Virginia and other neighboring states in solar installations.

Virginia should develop a similar model ordinance that can draw from solar-ready ordinances already adopted in Accomack, Northampton, and Clarke Counties. I believe this would be a worthwhile effort of the newly approved Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

William Marsh is a civil engineer who has worked for local government in northern Virginia the last 13 years, currently at Fairfax County.  He also owns a rooftop solar array at his home.

Grid Optimization: More Software, Less Hardware


by James A. Bacon

Dominion Voltage, Inc., a subsidiary of Dominion Resources, has announced the deployment of its electric grid optimization platform to the Duck River Electric Membership Corporation served by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Duck River expects to generate energy savings of 2% to 4% annually and says the technology will accelerate the deployment of Advanced Metering Infrastructure, which should enable even greater energy conservation.

Dominion Voltage’s EDGE platform “leverages the smart grid network for Volt/VAR optimization and voltage stabilization, which leads to a more efficient grid,” stated Executive Director Todd Headlee in a press release today.

The most concise explanation of “voltage optimization” that I’ve seen comes from Dick Munson, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Midwest Clean Energy initiative, writing a week ago for the EDF blog:

Many appliances, including incandescent lighting, work just as effectively, yet consume less energy, when the flow of electricity to them is reduced. Put another way, higher voltages generally make individuals and businesses needlessly use more energy, driving up electricity bills and air pollution. Therefore, if voltage was “right-sized,” residents would get enough power to run their appliances efficiently, but not so much that they use more electricity than needed.

According to Munson, recent study by Commonwealth Edison Company (ConEd)  concluded that voltage optimization could reduce the need for almost 20,000 gigawatt hours of electricity yearly across its system, enough to power 180,000 homes, at the incredibly low cost of 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Bacon’s bottom line: Grid optimization technologies are a sub-set of a larger cluster of technologies including microprocessor controls, sensors and software algorithms collectively referred to as “smart grid” technologies that hold out the potential to improve energy efficiency and integrate variable power sources like wind and solar into the grid.

Richmond-based Dominion Resources is investing in some of these technologies through unregulated subsidiaries like Dominion Voltage. That makes an interesting business story. What makes it a Virginia public policy story is whether Dominion is applying these same technologies in its regulated subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power. If not, why not. What are the hold-ups? Or has the story simply gone unnoticed?

If there’s one thing that rate payers, environmentalists, electric utilities, the Commonwealth of Virginia and just about everyone else should be able to agree upon, it’s that reducing energy consumption at the cost of 2 cents per kilowatt hour is a win-win for everyone. I will pursue this line of questioning as I have time.

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pipelines and Property Lines

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline wants to inspect land along a proposed 550-mile route. Legal challenges from landowners could re-write a 2004 law governing property rights in utility surveys.

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, We Have No Solar Today

sunpower hqBy Peter Galuszka

If you are a homeowner in Virginia interested in installing solar panels at your house, you might consider moving to New Jersey.


Because a subsidiary of your very own utility, Dominion Energy Solutions, is partnering with SunPower, a California-based company that makes solar systems for the home, to move into the New Jersey market.

“New Jersey is one of the fastest growing solar markets in the U.S. To serve that demand, we’re pleased to offer high-efficiency SunPower solar power systems to qualified homeowners in the state,” said Mary Doswell, senior vice president of Dominion Energy Solutions in a press release. “With financing options including lease, loan or cash purchase, this program makes it easy for homeowners to go solar, maximizing electricity cost savings while reducing the family’s carbon footprint.”

Sounds great! But why not in Virginia?

To find out, I called SunPower and asked them if they had a similar program with Dominion In Virginia. The lady didn’t seem to know, but added, “Wait, give me your zip code and I’ll see if we have an installer in your area.”

“23838,” I said.

“Sorry, but it doesn’t appear that we have anyone there, but keep looking, we should be there some day,” she said.

Hat tip: Glen Besa