Category Archives: Science & Technology

Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy

offshore wind By Peter Galuszka

For all the hew and cry over renewable energy sources and the “War on Coal,” it is extremely interesting to see just how much progress Virginia has made with renewable energy. The answer: hardly any to none.

A moment of clarity came when I was perusing blog postings by IvyMain, a D.C. area lawyer and Virginia Sierra Club activist who is quite often ahead of the curve on energy issues.

She posted a table of how Virginia compares with neighboring states in development of solar and wind power.

Leading her list is West Virginia with 583 megawatts of wind power. Next is North Carolina with 335 megawatts of solar power. Maryland is almost equally split between solar and wind with 262 megawatts.

And Virginia? A whopping 18 megawatts of solar and zip-o wind.

The State Corporation Commission has written against proposal EPA regs limiting carbon emissions saying it would shut down too many coal-fired plants. Solar and wind could make up some of it, but the SCC claims that “there is still zero probability that wind and solar resources can be developed in the time and on a scale necessary to accommodate the zero-carbon generations levels needed” to help meet the EPA’s carbon emission goals by 2030. Even more curious, the SCC used EPA figures that Virginia has 351 megawatts of renewable power. Hmmm.

One can almost see a clever and duplicitous scheme here. One reason why Virginia’s neighbors have remarkably more renewable power than Virginia is that they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards. In Maryland, 20 percent of all electricity generated must come from renewable sources by 2020. In North Carolina, it is 12.5 percent by 2021 and in coal-rich West Virginia, it is 25% renewable by 2025.

Virginia’s “voluntary” goal is 12 percent by 2022. Why so little and voluntary? Easy. Dominion Virginia Power has a legal deal going where it has a “monopoly” on electricity distribution and according to IvyMain cracks down wherever possible on independent solar generation. She notes that Dominion squelched a solar project at Washington & Lee University a few years ago and has attacked similar plans. After preventing renewable power from developing, Dominion and its allies can then say we must keep big, traditional  facilities (nuclear, natural gas and coal-fired) going because there’s so little available on the renewable front.

Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.

Conservative commentators regularly pin the EPA’s flexible but stricter rules on a so-called “War on Coal” led by President Barack Obama. Yet, Virginia is a small coal producer compared to West Virginia, which is presumably ground zero in the fight against the Black Diamonds. So, how come West Virginia, the No. 2 coal state, has mandatory renewable standards and leads the pack in renewable energy?

The answer is that West Virginia’ leadership knows that its coal days are numbered and this started long before Obama came to power. The Mountain state has plenty of, well, mountains that can be great foundations for wind. So, too, does Virginia – the exact same mountain ranges in fact. But that doesn’t seem to matter. One noted right-winger blogged about the supposed “War on Coal” and then tried to preempt responses that broadened the reasons for coal’s demise:

“No lectures about the coal industry, please. I understand that the current woes of the coal industry stem in large measure from coal’s loss of competitiveness to natural gas as a fuel and to cyclical movements in the market for metallurgical coal (used by the steel industry). However, the Appalachian coal industry still produces a lot of steam coal for power plants, and the EPA rules would destroy much of that market. Clearly, the EPA rules, which are not yet in effect, have not yet destroyed a single coal-mining job. Come back to me in 2020 and it will be a very different story.”

Today’s New York Times has a story about political races in West Virginia where coal and Obama are naturally issues. The story contains this revealing passage:

“The coal industry’s long decline is economically complex. When Alpha Natural Resources, one of West Virginia’s largest coal operators, warned 1,100 employees of potential layoffs in July, it blamed a worldwide glut of coal, competition from cheaper natural gas, and lower-cost coal from western basis – as well as Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“But in the charged political arena, complexities fade and both sides identify a sole culprit for the industry’s struggles: the administration’s anti-coal regulations.”

So there you have it. In Virginia, rules are set up to prevent renewables from being established while political types and their conservative blogger handmaidens beat the drum against the EPA and Obama.

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be? Continue reading

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Tech_robotics_lab

Virginia Tech robotics lab

It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)

It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.

One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.

Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.

My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech.  Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.

Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.

There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.

– JAB

Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly

Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Using Big Data to Put Veterans Back to Work

veteransby James A. Bacon

Unemployment among veterans in the United States is higher than that for the population at large. The problem is particularly acute among post 9/11 veterans, for whom the unemployment rate ran 9.0% in 2013 — nearly 50% higher than the 6.2% rate for all Americans, according to data from the U.S. Congress’ Joint Economic Commitee.

The silver lining for Virginians is that the unemployment rate for young vets in the Old Dominion was actually lower than the statewide average — only 4% compared to 5.4%.

Those figures alone are grounds for thinking that Virginia is more committed than many other states to promote veteran employment. In one example of that state’s commitment, the commonwealth helped pioneer a public-private open data collaborative, Veteran Talent, to shed light on veteran employment issues. The Virginia Employment Commission contributed data on unemployed veterans in each county by age, education attainment and the occupation code for the job they seek.

Veteran Talent, a project funded by the Duffield Family Foundation, mashed up data from numerous public and private sources, including U.S. Census data and job sites like Monster.com, to create a detailed national picture of how many unemployed veterans there are, where they are located, what job skills they possess and what skills employers are looking for. Not only will the searchable database suggest where veterans could be focusing their job searches geographically and where employers can identify pockets of potential employees, but it allows researchers to plumb the data for insight into the nature of the challenge.

“We need a clear understanding of the problem,” says Aneesh Chopra, co-founder of big-data and predictive-analytics firm Hunch Analytics and former chief technology officer in the Obama administration, who spear-headed the effort. We’ve had the data all along, he says, but it resided in numerous unconnected databases. By mashing up the data and making it accessible to the public, Veteran Talent allows people to spot patterns and make connections that would have been impossible before.

The Corporate Executive Board Talent Neuron used the database to examine how many veterans would qualify for entry-level technology jobs. In Virginia, for example, Talent Neuron found 681 technology jobs posted by employers committed to hiring veteran talent. Of those, about 190 are entry-level. The analysis also identified about 275 trainable, unemployed veterans in Virginia alone.

While unemployed veterans may not possess all the technology requirements needed to match those job requirements, they may meet some criteria. In other words, they have a shorter training bridge to cross than someone from the general population in order to qualify for an entry tech job. Says Chopra: “The current workforce system isn’t doing that.”

Research by John Parman, a College of William & Mary economics professor, found that unemployment rates for veterans varies in Virginia from below 2% in Alexandria and Stafford County to more than 11% in Bedford County and the City of Roanoke. Jurisdictions with more dynamic economies that experience more income mobility show lower veteran unemployment rates, while jurisdictions with less mobility show higher veteran unemployment rates. But veterans don’t seem to benefit as much from higher-mobility economies than the general population does.

“These findings … lead to important considerations when crafting policies targeted at solving veteran unemployment issues,” writes Parman. “Using non-veteran data to predict the experiences of veterans can be misleading and policies targeting reductions in general unemployment rates may have the unintended consequence of widening gaps between veteran and non-veteran outcomes.”

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

Smart Cities Tech Meets Sea Level Rise

In the most imaginative and useful application of crowd-sourcing technology I’ve seen in Virginia, Hampton Roads Cares has helped fund creation of the Wetlands Watch Sea-Level Rise app. Right now, you don’t know where it’s going to flood until you’re in the middle of it, says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, in this video. “As long as you’re out there, wheel-well deep in water, you might as well be telling the person behind you that it’s wet here.” The ultimate goal: to provide enough data to help scientists and modelers predict where flooding will occur. – JAB

Richmond’s Tech Star in Kickback Scheme?

HDL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Critics of the American healthcare system have long cited hidden charges as one reason why costs are so high and why reform is needed.

So, it is disturbing to read a report on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that Health Diagnostic Laboratory, arguably the most successful of the biotechnology firms to come out of a much-touted research park in Richmond, is implicated in a possible scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors who use its blood testing services.

The Journal reports:

Until late June, HDL paid $20 per blood sample to most doctors ordering its tests — more than other labs paid. For some physician practices, payments totaled several thousand dollars a week, says a former company employee.

HDL says it stopped those payments after a Special Fraud Alert on June 25 from the Department of Health and Human Services, which warned that such remittances presented “substantial risk of fraud and abuse under the anti-kickback statute.

HDL Chief Executive Tonya Mallory told the Journal that her firm “rejects any assertion” that the company grew as fast as it did “as a result of anything other than proper business practices.”

Meanwhile, HDL has sent Bacon Rebellion this updated response.

Others say that paying doctors fees sets up the chances for fraud, especially in Medicare, one of HDL’s biggest markets, the Journal reports. Other testing firms, the Journal reports, pay doctors nothing for using their services.

This is bad news for what was Richmond’s Poster Child of successful high tech startups after years of flops at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Founded in 2008 under Mallory’s leadership, HDL zipped up to $383 million in revenues with 41 percent of that coming from Medicare,” the Journal says.

Much of the issue seems to be related to how accurately and fairly to define what is merely drawing a patient’s blood and how much goes for “P&H” or processing and handling. A problem is that Medicare doesn’t pay any more than $3 for merely drawing blood. HDL has estimated that the “P&H” part is worth about $17. The firm claims it has special proprietary methods that give it an edge.

According to Virginia Business magazine, which named Mallory its person of the year last year:

Mallory, 48, founded HDL in the summer of 2009. Since then, it has grown from a kitchen-table business plan to a corporation earning more than $420 million in annual revenue, employing 750 people, processing 4,000 lab samples and running more than 60,000 lab tests each day. HDL has driven near constant construction at its home in downtown Richmond’s Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, where a $68.5 million expansion soon will triple the company’s footprint to 280,000 square feet.

Last year Mallory received the Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Company category. One of the country’s most prestigious business awards for entrepreneurs, it recognizes leaders who demonstrate innovation, financial success and personal commitment as they build their businesses.

The Journal, however, quotes several disgruntled employees and notes that Mallory had worked for a California firm called “Berkeley Heart Lab Inc,.” which began using tests called “biomarkers” which can predict future health problems by analyzing blood.

Mallory, who was raised in Hanover County and attended Virginia Commonwealth University, was senior lab-operations manager at Berkeley until she left for Richmond in 2008, the Journal says. Two Berkeley sales executives went with her and formed a company that ended up marketing HDL’s products.
Berkeley sued HDL, accusing it of stealing its business. HDL denied the allegations. HDL settled one case for $7 million, the Journal says, but other cases are pending.