Category Archives: Science & Technology

Free the Data!

data

by James A. Bacon

I’m not sure if this idea will lead anywhere but it’s worth a try: The Commonwealth of Virginia has released an open data set of job postings in the state with the hope that someone will come up with innovative ways to use it.

The initiative arises from an executive order by Governor Terry McAuliff establishing the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Research and Statistics that, according to the Washington Business Journal, aims to improve labor market, workforce and education data.

“The data is available, and now we are gearing toward finding ways to make insights,” said Kim McKay, a research and policy analyst at the Council on Virginia’s Future, one of the program’s sponsors. “It’s important to note that this is a early stage pilot program.”

“This is the first time any state has taken online job postings and curated it for public use,” said Aneesh Chopra, co-founder of Arlington-based Hunch Analytics and a former secretary of technology of Virginia. “The governor made the goal to make the labor market work better … and this is a down payment on the idea.”

Chopra hopes that businesses will start finding uses for the data, just as the weather forecasting industry created applications that fed off government-compiled weather data.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not smart enough to imagine how the data, comprised of public and private job listings dispersed across multiple job sites, can be used. Maybe someone will come up with a brilliant idea, maybe nothing will come of it. In either case, state government is spending next to nothing to make the data available. It’s worth a try. Perhaps this initiative will lead to the liberation of other data sets and spark the creation of entirely new information products.

How One Gas Plant Can Save Billions

Dominion Virginia Power's gas-burning plant in Brunswick County opened this year. The Greensville power station, scheduled to open in 2018, will be even more cost efficient.

Shown here: Dominion Virginia Power’s state-of-the-art, gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The company’s Greensville facility will be even more cost efficient.

There’s more to the natural gas boom than fracking. Technology deployed at Dominion’s Greensville power plant will squeeze more electricity out of a BTU of gas than ever before. 

by James A. Bacon

Last month Dominion Virginia Power commenced construction of the $1.3 billion Greensville County Power Station. When it opens in late 2018, the facility could well be the most efficient gas-burning electrical power plant in the world. That one facility will save Dominion customers $2.1 billion over its 36-year lifetime, the company says, even as it emits less carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour than other gas power plants and only 40% of that of a coal-fired plant.

Even if stretched out over 36 years, $2 billion represents a significant savings from a single power station. The average savings of $59 million a year compares to $7 billion annually paid by Dominion’s Virginia and North Carolina rate payers.

Rate payers might wonder: How does Dominion calculate that $2 billion in savings. The station will save $2 billion compared to what? Those questions seem all the more germane in light of commonly heard arguments that investing in massive natural gas-fired power plants instead solar panels and wind turbines is a bad idea when the price of gas will only rise in the future and the cost of renewable energy will steadily decline.

“We see the potential for a lot of stranded costs to be put on consumers as emissions of carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions continue to be ratcheted down,” says Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club-Virginia chapter. Solar is not just non-polluting but in many parts of the country it’s the lowest-cost energy source. As solar technology improves and the cost per kilowatt hour continues to decline, solar could become the low-cost option in Virginia, too. While natural gas might look like an attractive option today, it may not be as gas reserves are depleted and prices rise. Says Addleson: “Dominion is pointing to the benefits of gas because that’s what they see as the best outcome for their profit margin.”

Dominion defends its commitment to natural gas as the best deal for rate payers. The Greensville County Power Station will save money two ways: (1) by extracting more energy value from each BTU of gas, and (2) by using its access to two pipelines to purchase cheaper gas.

Greensville will be the third “three on one” Combined Cycle plant in Dominion’s generating fleet, using waste heat from three gas-burning turbines to power a traditional steam generator. Incorporating the most advanced Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems turbines, Greensville will squeeze more electricity from 1,000 BTUs of natural gas than ever before.

Combustion at higher temperatures also releases less carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. The Greensville plant will emit 780 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour (MWh), an incremental improvement over the 790 pounds for the Brunswick plant and 2,100 pounds for a typical coal-burning plant. Mike Dowd, director of air quality for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), noted that the air permit sets the limit at 813 pounds per MWh, the toughest ever set on a combined cycle, natural gas power station. Environmental groups claimed credit for the “stronger pollution protection” they lobbied for. But the real enabler of the stricter environmental standards was the same combustion technology that makes the facility so economical to run.

Glenn Kelly, director of Generation System Planning, walked me through Dominion’s methodology for calculating the cost savings. If Dominion did not build the Greensville plant, he said, the company would have to purchase the megawatts from wholesale electricity markets maintained by PJM, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part. “PJM market is always an option. We can always buy energy and capacity there  – that’s our benchmark. ”

In the PJM wholesale market, utilities purchase capacity (the right to draw electricity, if needed) and energy (the actual electricity consumed) in day-before and same-day auctions. Prices vary by season, time of day, weather conditions, and other factors such as the volume of electricity being bought and sold at any given point of time and the ability of transmission lines to deliver the electricity to the consumer in different parts of the country. In all likelihood, Greensville’s replacement electric power would come from a mix of gas-fired, solar, wind, and other energy sources — whatever other utilities and merchant providers are willing to put on the market.

How does Dominion know what PJM will charge Dominion years in the future? It doesn’t. It relies upon its economic consulting company, ICF, to make realistic assumptions. ICF assumes that prices will fluctuate around the long-term cost (including a reasonable corporate profit) of generating the electricity, and that the cost of burning gas or building a solar panel can be estimated with some degree of reliability. “Gas prices are very volatile short-term,” says Kelly. Right now prices are depressed, running between $2 and $3 per million BTUs. ICF projects gas prices will likely climb to about $5.11 per million BTU by 2025. “We have it going up pretty fast.”

Many people are familiar with the fact that the cost per KWh of solar energy has gone down as solar panels get more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, but few are aware how the cost of generating electricity from gas has gone down — and not just because of the fracking revolution that has flooded the market with gas. State-of-the-art power stations extract more electricity from the same amount of gas.

The G Class turbines installed in Dominion’s Brunswick County power station, which opened this year, are more efficient than the previous generation, says Bill Newsom, executive vice president-new generation systems with Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas. They are about 59% efficient; that is, they extract about 59% of the energy value from the natural gas. The rest goes up the smokestack or is lost as waste heat. Continue reading

Learning from the “Fat Hypothesis” and the Intersection of Science and Politics

Image credit: The Guardian

Image credit: The Guardian

by James A. Bacon

Ian Leslie has written a long piece for The Guardian, a left-wing English newspaper that to the best of my knowledge is not funded by the Koch Brothers. He chronicles how the medical hypothesis blaming fat and cholesterol for heart disease became ensconced as scientific orthodoxy in the United States and Great Britain in the 1970s. He shows how that orthodoxy was suborned by government, how it was used with the best of intentions to alter the dietary habits of the two nations, and how it created the obesity epidemic that has shortened the lives of millions. Nearly fifty years later, that orthodoxy is being overthrown as  blame for heart disease increasingly shifts to processed sugar.

At a time when some in Washington, D.C., cite a “consensus” regarding climate change and call for the federal prosecution of climate change “deniers,” the article is worth quoting at some length, for it shows how badly science in the hands of politicians can go off the rails. Leslie does not himself note a parallel between the debates over fat and climate change, but such a comparison is inevitable. Perhaps the article will instill some humility among those tempted to revamp large sectors of the economy based on the latest scientific fashion. At the very least, it should discourage people from snuffing out dissenting scientific voices with threats of criminal prosecution.

In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the nutritional advice on which we have relied for 40 years was profoundly flawed, this is not a mistake that can be laid at the door of corporate ogres. Nor can it be passed off as innocuous scientific error. … Instead that this is something the scientists did to themselves – and, consequently, to us.

Continue reading

Yeah, It Makes Sense for Virginia to Invest in Cybersecurity

Mackster

The Mackster gives speech at Launch Lounge event in San Francisco in March 2016. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Normally, it’s a terrible idea for government to pick economic winners and losers. Politicians latch onto fads and enthusiasms arising from the private sector but allow wishful thinking to override investment discipline when it comes to allocating government capital.

Bacon’s dictum is that if “everyone” knows a sector is hot, and “everyone” is investing in it, unless you’re the smartest, best-informed guy in the room, you’re probably wasting your money.

Twenty years ago, economic developers were chasing the semiconductor and “high tech” sectors. Today, biotech and greentech are hot — and mayors and governors around the country are mal-investing hundreds of millions of dollars in those sectors in the vain hope of triggering riding the wave to economic prosperity. That’s why I cringe when I read about the City of Virginia Beach putting money into a “biomedical” office park, and I get the heebie-jeebies when the state backs Northern Virginia’s Center for Personalized Health.

I may live to regret saying so, but I think that Gov. Terry McAuliffe may be on to something with his cybersecurity initiative. His two-year budget for 2017-2018 steers $750,000 in extra funding to Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) to develop an “information sharing and analysis” capability to build upon CIT’s Mach37 cyber-accelerator located in the CIT building and CIT’s investments, typically about $50,000 a pop, in cyber-related start-ups. In the grand scheme of things, the money is pocket change. The real contribution that CIT provides is acting as a relationship and resource broker for aspiring entrepreneurs.

There are several reasons why I think the cyber-security initiative makes sense for Virginia.

First, business and government awareness of cyber threats has increased markedly in the past few years. The threat is real, and business and governmental organizations are spending more money to combat it.

Second, Virginia is a major player in the industry, second only to California in the number of cyber-security vendors. Companies with cyber-security capabilities have clustered in Northern Virginia to serve the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency, where security requirements are high. With a wealth of human capital — thousands of IT workers trained in information technology and cyber-security — the region generates lots of new security-related business ideas. The existence of an existing business cluster and innovation ecosystem makes it easier for entrepreneurs to recruit skilled employees and forge alliances and partnerships.

Third, cyber-security as an economic development ploy has not yet become a national craze. Stupid money hasn’t yet started flowing into the industry, creating a glut of too many dollars chasing too few deals. Inevitably, that will happen, and Virginia leaders need to be alert to it. But it doesn’t seem to be happening yet.

Fourth, Virginia is not throwing around a lot of money. The added sums are infinitesimal compared to what Virginia is spending on new STEM programs at Virginia universities, the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund, and the universities’s share of the recently approved 2.1 billion bond package. As noted above, Virginia’s main contribution to cybersecurity is identifying entrepreneurs with promising ideas and hooking them up with private-sector partners who can help them. That is a defensible, inexpensive, and value-added role for the state to play.

Finally, the potential return on public investment is high. ThreatQuotient, a Northern Virginia cybersecurity company that received $1.5 million in seed funding from local investors including CIT early last  year, raised $10.2 million in second-round financing in December, and won recognition in a cybersecurity industry conference in San Francisco as “startup company of the year.” ThreatQuotient now employs 50 people in Reston, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Reports Michael Martz:

CIT officials estimate the [Growth Accelerator Program seed] funds leverage every dollar invested by 18.5 times, using $17.9 million in equity investments to attract $331 million in private investment in companies with a total value of $798 million. They estimate those companies will create up to 9,000 jobs in Virginia over the next five years. The [state] budget allocated $3.1 million a year to the program and requires a return on investment of no less than 11 to 1.

It goes without saying that such claims should not be taken at face value. CIT, like every other public, private or quasi-public entity in the world, is putting the best face on its performance. Still, the investment returns would appear to be orders of magnitude greater than traditional economic-development tax incentives and real estate subsidies.

There appears to be one other thing the state can do to promote this burgeoning sector. As Martz observes, thousands of cyber-security jobs are going begging in Virginia. The industry has grown faster than the ability to train people to fill the jobs. “It’s an absolute fact for our industry that the demand for talent, especially technical talent, and the supply, there’s just a disconnect,” he quotes John Czupkak, who serves on the ThreatQuotient board of directors, as saying.

As I have long maintained, state and local government can best promote economic development by doing its core jobs well: Deliver the highest quality government services at the lowest possible cost. Virginia doesn’t need to incentivize or subsidize cybersecurity to make it successful. Virginia community colleges and universities need to turn out more graduates with the skills the industry needs.

Virginia Beach on Another Wild Goose Chase

wild_goose_chase

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach City Council voted yesterday to give 155 acres to build a biomedical park, reports the Virginian-Pilot. The Virginia Beach Development Authority will oversee the design and promotion of the property.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms justified the initiative to lure health care and biotech companies as a way to diversify the city’s economy away from the military and tourism sectors. “You’ve got to look around the country and see what is really growing. As you know, health care numbers continue to increase,” Sessoms said earlier. “We saw that as an opportunity.”

Economic Development Director Warren Harris said the city has identified some prospective tenants, including a regenerative medicine/cancer research firm and a stem cell research firm. MedImmune, a research and development arm of British drugmaker AstraZeneca, met with city officials last month and “left very impressed,” Harris said.

Bacon’s bottom line: This cannot end well. In its pursuit of “economic development” Sessoms seems to be chasing every shiny object that someone dangles in front of him. Last night City Council also voted to sign two agreements with the state that keeps on track plans to extend Norfolk’s light rail system into Virginia Beach on the promise of the most nebulous of benefits. The mayor also supports a mega-convention complex (committing the city more deeply to a tourism-oriented economic development policy). And he supported city subsidies to jump-start redevelopment of the old Cavalier Hotel into a resort complex (another tourism-oriented initiative). As if all these city-backed projects were not enough, now he wants a biotech park.

Well, get in line. Everybody sees high-tech medicine as the next big thing, and everyone wants a piece of it. Bacon’s Rebellion has highlighted the plans of Inova and George Mason University to build a Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax County, and the ambition of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic to build a biotech cluster around neuroscience in Roanoke. While both those initiatives face major challenges, they at least have resources that Virginia Beach doesn’t have. The Inova-GMU project is located in the Washington metropolitan area, one of the largest biotech clusters in the country, and Inova has publicly stated its willingess to put $200 million into the project. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is the largest research university in the state, and it is partnering with western Virginia’s largest health care system.

There is no indication in the Virginian-Pilot reporting that Virginia Beach has forced an alliance with either the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) or the Sentara Health System. Despite the fact that the Virginia Beach site is not located anywhere near EVMS or Sentara General Hospital, the region’s flagship hospital, Harris sees the park focusing on diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and traumatic brain injury. As for supporting assets, Harris cites a branch of Tidewater Community College and the Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, which opened in 2011. Virginia Beach also has donated $1 million to fund the initiative. Really? Is this serious?

The city has many assets. Biotech is not one of them. The chances of building a high-end biomedical cluster are just about nil. For biomedical projects lower down the value-added scale, a run-of-the-mill office park will likely do. If Virginia Beach wants economic development, maybe it should persuade Governor Terry McAuliffe to stop subsidizing the relocation of Virginia Beach businesses to Norfolk. In the meantime, the city should focus on providing core government services of the best possible quality at the lowest possible cost. It’s that simple.

SCHEV Approves First School of Neuroscience

neuroscienceThe State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has approved the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, the first school of neuroscience in the country. The school will study disorders of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury, and the mind itself, including decision-making, behavior and creativity, reports Virginia Business.

The school will have 15 faculty members and enroll 150 students. Neuroscience students will have the opportunity to become involved with biomedical neuroscience research in the recently launched Health Sciences and Technology Innovation District in Roanoke.

Bacon’s bottom line: Congrats, Virginia Tech. It’s good for Virginia universities to push into burgeoning fields of knowledge. And I like the economic development tie-in with Roanoke. At the same time, universities can’t be all things to all people. As universities expand into new fields, they should contract in older, less relevant fields experiencing shrinking class enrollment. Somehow, we never seem to read about universities pulling the plug on declining programs. Maybe it happens, but we don’t hear about it.

— JAB

A Partial Mea Culpa on Shukla and GMU

by James A. Bacon

I fess up. I raised questions and made insinuations unwarranted by the facts in a recent post, “Did Shukla Fudge His Conflict-of-Interest Waiver Form?” When I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, so here goes….

The article addressed a conflict-of-interest waiver form submitted by George Mason University climatology professor Jagadish Shukla regarding his affiliation with the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), which paid him $343,000 in 2012 over and above his university salary. I wrote:

Shukla’s waiver request form stated that he received annual salary “in excess of $10,000 from IGES.” The waiver-request form did not state that he earned $343,025 in 2013 compensation, nor that IGES paid his wife $141,000 as business manager, nor that the institute paid GMU colleague James Kinter $207,0000 as director, all as reported in IGES’ 990 form. Ten thousand dollars is in the range of part-time employment that would not conflict with Shukla’s university obligations; three-hundred and forty-three thousand dollars, which exceeded his university salary, is not.

So, the question arises whether Shukla submitted deceptively incomplete information by characterizing his compensation from IGES as “in excess of $10,000,” or whether he remedied that deficiency by conveying it verbally or in some other manner. …

Accordingly, I would conjecture, subject to verification, that the committee based its conflict-of-interest decision solely upon the information that Shukla provided in his waiver request form, in which he described his IGES compensation only as “in excess of $10,000.” …

One possible conclusion to draw from this evidence is that Shukla deliberately obscured his IGES compensation in the conflict-of-interest waiver request form. Another possible conclusion is that committee members knew of the hefty compensation but chose — wink, wink, nod, nod — not to make it an issue. Perhaps readers could offer other possible explanations.

A reader using the name “Travis Bickle” pointed out the existence of a GMU “Outside Employment” policy document of which I had been unaware when I wrote the article. That document states that GMU employees “may engage in certain employment outside the university, provided that the employee has obtained prior written approval of his or her supervisor and the employee complies with all relevant University policies, including policies regarding conflicts of interest…”

Employees must report salary and benefits “that may reasonably be anticipated to exceed $10,000 annually.” They also must submit “regular and routine reports (monthly or quarterly) from such firm or entity identifying the number of hours and total payment made to the University employee.”

Based on these reporting requirements, there is no reason to believe that GMU’s conflict-of-interest committee was uninformed of Shukla’s significant additional compensation.

Had I done a more thorough job of reporting, I would not have asked if Shukla had fully complied with reporting requirements, nor if university officials were aware of his full outside income. Nor would I have raised the possibility that Shukla had fudged his conflict-of-interest compensation, or that university officials had looked the other way. Knowing what I know now, those were unfair questions to pose and insinuations to make based on the information available to me. I apologize for making them.

I apologize to readers as well. I have committed a number of gaffes over the years, and when I am made aware of them, I perform a public mea culpa. Doing serious journalism on a blog is like flying without a net. I have no editor to read behind me, spot inaccuracies or question the thoroughness of my reporting. I count on readers to fill that role, as Mr. “Bickle” has done. When I fall short of my standards, I do my best to set the record straight.

That said, there are still serious issues regarding Shukla’s immense compensation. In light of this new information I would reframe the issue this way: If GMU’s conflict-of-interest committee was fully informed that Shukla’s income from IGES consumed 33 hours weekly and more than doubled his university salary, why did the committee allow it? How is it possible that working 33 hours on IGES business, as closely related with Shukla’s university job as director of the Climate Dynamics Program as it may have been, did not interfere with his teaching, administrative and other university duties?

Alternatively, if Shukla’s IGES duties were so closely aligned with his GMU duties that they posed no conflict, was he essentially collecting two salaries for doing the same job? If so, why would GMU have permitted it?

Then there is the bigger question to consider: Is Shukla an outlier in working the system, or is this a case where “everybody does it”? There are dozens of “institutes” and “centers” in Virginia universities, and hundreds of faculty members and researchers affiliated with them. Most if not all of these groups rely upon outside funding, whether from the federal government or from private sources. Is double dipping widespread? And, if so, are the safeguards in place — Virginia laws and university policies, federal R&D contracts, governance systems for 501(c)3 non-profit entities — adequate to prevent abuse?