It’s the Buzzard Talking

It's the Buzzard Talking

If you want to understand why Dominion Virginia Power does what it does, visit the Henrico County operations center where the company manages 6,400 miles of electric transmission line.

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A Plethora of Pipelines

A Plethora of Pipelines

Four companies are talking about building gas pipelines through Virginia. How many are needed -- and who decides?

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Pipelines and Property Lines

Pipelines and Property Lines

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.

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Salvaging Wind Power in Virginia

Salvaging Wind Power in Virginia

Dominion thinks $400 million is too much to pay for two experimental offshore wind turbines. The utility is exploring ways to drive the cost down.

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Cutting CO2 One Refrigerator at a Time

Cutting CO2 One Refrigerator at a Time

Energy efficiency is everybody's favorite strategy for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. But conservation programs are not always economical.

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Free Speech on Campus: ODU Update

odu_fraternityby James A. Bacon

When students showed up for the start of school at Old Dominion University last weekend, they were greeted by banners hanging from a balcony at the off-campus Sigma Nu fraternity house:

“Rowdy and fun—hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”
“Freshman daughter drop off.”
“Go ahead and drop mom off too…”

Suggestive? Certainly. Crude? Yeah. Offensive? To some. So abominable as to warrant a suspension of the fraternity? Sorry, I’m not buying it. The fact is, the banners were a pretty accurate reflection of the college experience — let’s drink, party and get naked. But in the new Puritanism of the Title IX war on “campus rape,” it’s not possible to actually express that sentiment publicly. Don’t get me wrong: I’m repelled by drunken college parties that lead to unfortunate sexual encounters, occasionally even to rape. Student culture is atrocious and needs to change. But I’m no fan of suppressing free speech either.

On Sunday, ODU President John Broderick disseminated a letter to the community, telling how offended he was by the message: “While we constantly educate students, faculty and staff about sexual assault and sexual harassment, this incident confirms our collective efforts are still failing to register with some.”

Broderick said he’d talked to “a young lady” who “courageously” described the “hurt” the signs had caused. “She thought seriously about going back home.”

Oh, poor, delicate flower! Back in the day, people would have responded to tasteless jokes by ignoring them, ostracizing the fraternity or perhaps organizing a demonstration. No longer. Now women swoon at the horror of a crude joke, and university administrations threaten punitive action. Said Broderick: “This incident will be reviewed immediately by those on campus empowered to do so. Any student found to have violated the code of conduct will be subject to disciplinary action.”

Well, we’ll see how the “review” goes, but I’m not expecting from the tone of Broderick’s letter that it will be an objective inquiry. Meanwhile, the national chapter of Sigma Nu has suspended the ODU fraternity — no doubt a pre-emptive move to contain the predictable outrage.

I’m wondering, will the suppression of Sigma Nu do anything to change the campus culture of drunken, indiscriminate sex that underlies the epidemic of regret sex and rape charges? Maybe there were be fewer incidents at ODU’s Sigma Nu while it’s closed, but nothing else will change.

Circuit Court Judge Upholds Pipelines’ Right to Survey

pipelineA circuit court judge in Montgomery County dealt a setback to foes of the Mountain Valley Pipeline yesterday by finding constitutional a controversial state law allowing natural gas companies to survey private property without an owner’s permission. Turk said that the Virginia law allows a natural gas company to enter private property for surveying even if its owner has denied permission, reports the Roanoke Times.

Temporary access to a landowner’s property for purposes of conducting a survey does not represent an unconstitutional “taking” of property without compensation, Turk ruled. “There’s no transfer of property,”  he said. The law in question “takes away the criminal aspect of trespass, something the Virginia legislature has the right to do.”

Turk’s ruling in the Giles County case could have implications for lawsuits filed by landowners in the path of both the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), who say that the activity of survey teams on private property can impose costs for which they are not compensated.

Attorneys representing landowners said that they intend to file lawsuits in other counties where clients could be impacted by the proposed pipelines. They will challenge state law on the grounds that MVP does not meet the criteria of a public service corporation. Pipeline foes have advanced the argument that there is no “public necessity” for either the MVP or the ACP, despite the fact that both pipeline companies have signed contracts for most of the pipelines’ capacity. Foes argue that existing pipelines could handle much, if not all, of the volume of natural gas required by the shift from coal- to gas-fired utilities and growth in the economy, and that there is no justification for acquiring rights of way through their land through eminent domain.


Walkability No Guarantee of Healthy Housing Market

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

There is an interesting juxtaposition of news items today. Redfin, the real estate brokerage website, has published a list of the Top 10 most walkable midsized cities in the country. Arlington County (a highly urbanized county) scored third and Richmond scored ninth, based on their Walk Score rankings.

Arlington won kudos for its Ballston-Virginia square neighborhood, where residents can walk to an average of 13 restaurant, bars or coffee shops within five minutes. While the Washington metropolitan area is notorious for its traffic, many Arlington residents live car-free, opting to get around on foot, bike and public transportation.

Richmond earned recognition for the revitalization of neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including Jackson Ward, Shockoe Bottom, Monroe Ward, the riverfront and Manchester. The Fan and Carytown neighborhoods to the west of downtown also stood out for their walkability.

To many urban theorists, walkability is a critical determinant of a community’s livability, ranking close behind the cost of real estate, the quality of schools and the level of taxes in what people take into account when deciding where to live. But it’s no guarantee of prosperity or rising real estate values…. which brings us to the other news item.

The top two midsized cities ranked by walkability are Jersey City (No. 1) and Newark (No. 2). But guess where Jersey City and Newark rank in WalletHub’s ranking of 2015’s Healthiest Housing Markets. Out of 94 midsized cities ranked, Newark scored 94th — dead last — while Jersey City ranked 76th. (Richmond ranked a ho-hum 45th among midsized cities.)

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll concede that this is a quick-and-dirty analysis based on a comparison of midsized cities only, not a comprehensive comparison of all types and sizes of municipal governments, so it may not reflect the larger reality. But I would advance this as a reasonable hypothesis: Walkability is a wonderful thing, and many people desire it, but it is a relatively minor factor influencing the health of urban real estate markets.


Yes, Virginia, the EPA Is Still Cracking Down on You

EPA_CPP_and_Vaby Bill Tracy

Many folks are trying to interpret the Environmental Protection Agency’s final Clean Power Plan (CPP) and its impact on Virginia. The EPA, along with its August 3 rule announcement, released a large volume of on-line support material including the popular State-at-a-Glance Summary sheets.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s state summary sheet is misleading. EPA made relatively large adjustments to Virginia’s 2012 Base Case, not shown on the state summary sheet. The adjustments were necessary to account for natural gas power plants that were already under construction. The 2030 final targets for Virginia do not seem logical unless you compare them against EPA’s adjusted 2012 base numbers.

Fortunately, EPA does give us enough source data in the State Goal Visualizer spreadsheet to allow me to calculate the adjusted 2012 base, shown below, according to my math:

Carbon intensity (pounds of CO2 emission per megawatt/hour of electricity):
2012 lbs CO2/MWhr: 1,477
2012 lbs CO2/MWhr: 1,366 (EPA Adjusted 2012 Base)
2030 lbs CO2/MWhr: 934

Total CO2 emissions permitted:
2012 CO2 Short Tons Mass: 27,365,439
2012 CO2 Short Tons Mass: 35,733,501 (EPA Adjusted 2012 Base)
2030 CO2 Short Tons Mass: 27,433,111

Now we can see that Virginia’s mass CO2 reduction target (23.2%) makes a lot more sense. The actual degree-of-difficulty is better described by the carbon intensity data (CO2 per MWhr), and Virginia’s 934 lbs target works out to a 31.6% CO2 reduction mandate.

To see how Virginia compares, I’ve hand-entered the data for all 50 states and plotted them up (see the graph above). The first conclusion that jumps out is how well Virginia (in purple) is doing, already operating at relatively low CO2 emission rates. The second conclusion is that Virginia does indeed seem to fall above the trend line, with our 31.6% CO2 reduction target. A bit lower target (27.5% reduction) would appear more equitable, assuming my trend line is correct. Virginia’s final carbon intensity mandate (934 lbs CO2/MWhr) could have been closer to a more manageable 1,000 lbs CO2/MWhr.

Those familiar with these numbers will recognize that 934 lbs CO2/MWhr is the approximate CO2 yield of a clean natural gas power plant. In others words, Virginia probably cannot operate many coal plants and still meet their 2030 CO2 target. In fact, EPA seems to be assuming that Virginia will shut down all but one coal plant by 2020, before CPP even kicks in. I’ve asked EPA to check their numbers to see if there is an error on the Virginia state summary sheet data for 2020.

Bottom line for me is that the Virginia CO2 targets appear very challenging. But somebody needs to check my numbers, and preferably EPA should show their adjusted 2012 base numbers on the State-at-a-Glance summary sheets. Meanwhile please be advised that most of the Virginia CPP information out there on the Web is using our non-adjusted 2012 base data.

Bill Tracy is a retired engineer, concerned citizen, and grandfather residing in Burke, Virginia.  

More Sequestration Pain for Virginia


Pentagon burning

by James A. Bacon

The pain of federal budget sequestration cuts in Virginia is not yet over. Look what The Washington Post reports today:

According to the Defense Department research, things are likely to worsen over the next four years. From 2010 to 2012, Virginia experienced $9.8 billion in defense cuts, with the vast majority of losses in Northern Virginia. Direct defense spending in the state is projected to drop from $64 billion this year to under $62 billion in 2019.

That’s only $2 billion in cuts compared to $9.8 billion previously. That sounds bad but not that bad. Actually, it is, says Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia: “If we have the return of sequestration, it’s going to be even worse than it was a couple of years ago, because every agency, particularly the Defense Department, has cleared out most of their coffers.”

I’m not sure exactly what “cleared out their coffers” means, but I’m guessing it means that defense agencies have burned through their budget gimmicks and are planning real cuts.

Adding to the woes, the impact of federal budget cuts will percolate through the rest of the economy. As government contractors consolidate, they’ll need less office space. That puts pressure on lease rates region-wide, there will be less construction work, and the necessary process of restructuring from inefficient and expensive land-use patterns to more cost-effective patterns will drag out. Meanwhile, transportation planning assumptions, predicated on wildly out-of-date assumptions about growth and development, will veer farther and farther from reality.

The rule is so simple: Things that can’t go on forever… won’t. The defense spending boom of the post 9/11 era could not continue forever… and it didn’t. The downturn and all the ugly consequences stemming from it were utterly foreseeable — I’ve been ranting about them for years.

I don’t lose a lot of sleep over real estate developers losing a fortune. They’re big boys and they know how to hedge their bets. (If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in the business.) I’m a lot more worried about the state and local government sinking billions of dollars on infrastructure designed for the go-go 2000s. It is astonishing to me that serious consideration is still being given to the Bi-County Parkway near Manassas, and I have serious questions about the assumptions underpinning the billions of dollars of improvements planned for Interstate 66 and the second leg of the Rail-to-Dulles project. Any project whose revenues are predicated on assumptions of increased traffic, which are based on the 2000s-era economic growth rates extended in a straight-line projection forever, will create nothing but headaches for taxpayers.

Charging Rate Payers for What?


The Appalachian School of Pharmacy… located in Appalachian Power Co. service territory.

by James A. Bacon

In 2012 Dominion Virginia Power donated $10,000 to the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, far outside the company’s service territory. It so happens that Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, head of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, has been a salaried fundraiser for the school, according to the Associated Press. It also so happens that Kilgore played an important role ushering legislation through the General Assembly this year that suspends until 2022 biennial reviews of Dominion’s base rates. Of the $10,000 Dominion donated, $4,000 was recouped from Dominion ratepayers, the AP says.

It’s one thing for Dominion shareholders to donate to charitable causes, even if the donation is politically motivated. Dominion should be entitled to the same right to participate in the political process as any business. But it’s quite another thing for the giant utility (and sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion) to charge such donations to rate payers.

“Why should captive ratepayers, who have no option to get electricity from another company, be compelled to fund the charitable choices of a company?” AP quotes former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as asking. “Leave the ratepayers their money, and let them make their own charitable choices.”

We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of money here. According to the AP, Dominion included $1.37 million of donations in the cost of service it charged to customers in 2o11 and 2012. State Corporation Commission staff recently filed testimony saying that Dominion should not be able to pass along $3.3 million in donations from 2013 and 2014. Dominion spokesman David Botkins says the company will file a detailed rebuttal later this month.

Many of those donations may be entirely legitimate, tied at least tangentially to the business of generating, distributing and conserving electric power. I can’t get exercised about the $7,500 donation  to the Peninsular Council for Workforce Development, cited in the AP article, even if CEO Matthew James also serves as a Portsmouth delegate to the General Assembly. As a major employer, Dominion has as much a stake in workforce development as any company in Virginia. (Although I would be interested to know if Dominion donated to other workforce councils in its service territory.) And, frankly, from the rate payer perspective, we’re talking chump change here. There are much bigger issues to worry about, like how rapidly to phase in renewable energy sources, where to build electric transmission lines, whether or not to build a nuclear power plant, and so on.

But the controversy isn’t about the impact on ratepayers. It’s about the political clout of the most influential corporation in Virginia politics. Dominion shouldn’t charge ratepayers for actions designed to influence legislation effecting ratepayers.

Katherine Bond, director of public policy for Dominion, told the AP that the company feels it “is important to support the communities in which we do business.” But the Appalachian School of Pharmacy, located in Oakwood, Va., is not a community served by Dominion. The company’s motive in donating the money might have been pure as the driven snow — but no one is going to believe it.

Dominion would do itself a big favor by tightening its guidelines for billing ratepayers. Limiting donations to communities within the company’s service area would be one place to start. If the company doesn’t police itself, legislators might be tempted to draft a law limiting such donations — and those limits could well be stricter than any limits the company would want.

Update: Dominion has issued a response to the AP story. Here’s the  meat of it: “Some perspective about the source of funding for those investments is important. In 2014, our company donated $18.5 million to charitable causes; the vast majority of these funds were provided directly by shareholders. In fact, in our latest filing with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC), we stated that only about $740,000 of these donations were supported by rates collected from our Dominion Virginia Power electric customers in the Commonwealth. That’s just 4 percent of the total.”

I have posted the full response in the comments and highlighted it in yellow.

Proudly Training the Next Generation of Indentured Servants

indentured_servantsIn the latest example of do-gooders creating social injustice, we now hear that nearly 7 million Americans have gone at least a year without making a payment on their federal loans.

As of July, 6.9 million Americans with student loans hadn’t sent a payment to the government in at least 360 days, according to the latest quarterly data from the U.S. Department of Education, reports the Wall Street Journal. That translates into 17% of all borrowers with federal loans being delinquent. Millions more are behind on their loans but haven’t hit the 360-day threshold that the government defines as default.

Absent a change in legislation, student loan debt can’t be dismissed through bankruptcy. Of course, do-gooder politicians, who urged laxer lending policies to begin with, now are falling over themselves to find ways to ease the debt burden incurred by the intended beneficiaries. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has proposed a plan that would cost $350 billion over 10 years and would be financed by a reduction in tax deductions for affluent taxpayers.

Summing up the problem: the United States higher ed system experiences endless administrative bloat… the costs of which universities pass on to students by means of higher tuition and fees… which the U.S. government makes easier to pay by allowing nearly unlimited borrowing… while no one addresses the underlying problem of rising costs. And the solution to the debt problem? Stick it to affluent taxpayers!

What a racket!

The rise of massive student indebtedness, now approaching $1.2 trillion, is as a clear-cut example of social injustice in the United States as you can find, but it is not portrayed is such because (a) the building blocks were put into place by social justice warriors themselves, and (b) the primary beneficiaries, universities, are bastions of do-gooder thinking.

This is only one of many examples of how the social justice crowd has immiserated the poor and working class in the United States through misguided policy. Before “helping” with student loans, the social justice crowd pushed for lower credit standards for mortgages in order to promote home ownership. The result: a deluge of foreclosures on sub-prime loans causing one of the greatest liquidations of wealth among the poor in U.S. history. Now the social justice crowd wants to “help” the poor by jacking up the minimum wage to levels that will, according to reputable estimates, result in the loss of 5% of such jobs in the short run, increase automation of low-wage jobs in the long run, and make it difficult for the poor and young to find entry-level jobs.


Want Social Justice? Create Jobs.

Photo credit: Buz and Ned's

Photo credit: Buz and Ned’s

by James A. Bacon

I’m all in favor of people earning higher wages. I want to live in a society in which people make enough from their labors to live on without government assistance. I just don’t think that mandating a minimum wage is the way to go about it, for all the reasons that foes of the minimum wage usually cite that don’t bear repeating here. A better way to increase wages is to (a) increase the number of jobs in the economy, which would (b) give employees more options, which would (c) prompt employers to offer better wages, benefits and working conditions in order to hang onto their workforce. Crank up the jobs machine, and the wages, benefits and working conditions will follow.

This forehead-smackingly obvious formula can be seen at work in Richmond’s restaurant community. After years of sub-par economic growth following the Great Recession, competition for skilled restaurant employees in the Richmond region is finally heating up. And guess what’s happening — restaurateurs are raising wages.

Thus, we read in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today that Buz Grossberg, owner of Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue restaurants, is bumping the starting pay to $12.50 per hour for regular employees and to $8 per hour for servers working for tips. That’s up from $8 and $6 an hour respectively.

Grossberg acted for reasons both idealistic and pragmatic. “This has been on my mind a long time, even before it became current politics,” he said. “It’s just gotten worse and worse. It’s gotten hard for people to repay their bills and see their family without working multiple jobs. … How do you attract people and keep people who can’t afford to feed their family? Pay them a living wage.”

But why did he act on his conscience now? Turns out that it’s getting harder finding and retaining talent, particularly kitchen workers, in Richmond’s increasingly competitive and crowded restaurant scene, according to other restaurateurs quoted in the article. Said Grossberg: “The people who would typically work [in the restaurant industry] are going other places.” Paying higher wages will bring them back in.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s basic supply-and-demand economics. If the economy creates jobs at a faster rate, wages will rise faster. And how do we create more jobs? Once place to start would be to re-think some of the job-killing policies we’ve enacted over the past 15 years, starting with Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, EPA regulatory overreach, higher taxes, regulation of the Internet and dozens of other initiatives that collectively have gummed up the economy and slowed growth to a crawl.

Defenders of the current regulatory regime tend to blame mysterious “economic forces” beyond their control. I’m old enough to remember those who claimed the “stagflation” of the 1970s likewise was due to some mysterious change in the nature of the economy rather than the policies of Richard “We’re All Keynesians Now” Nixon and Jimmy “Gas Rationing” Carter. Then along came policies that killed inflation, deregulated major industry sectors, cut taxes and enacted and real government spending cuts, precipitating nearly two decades of job creation. The surge in jobs in the 1980s and 1990s made the minimum wage irrelevant in many parts of the country because businesses were so desperate for labor that they were paying more than the minimum already.

I do feel badly for anyone trying to make a living on the minimum wage. But the answer isn’t more of the same “social justice” economics that have created our moribund economy and depressed wages. The best social justice program in the world is a strong job-creating economy.

It’s the Buzzard Talking

Buzzards on a power line -- no telling what might case an outage.

Buzzards on a power line — no telling what might cause an outage.

If you want to understand why Dominion Virginia Power does what it does, visit the Henrico County operations center where the company manages 6,400 miles of electric transmission line.

by James A. Bacon

Electric power companies have spent tens of billions of dollars hardening their electric transmission grids and building redundant systems to guard against the varied threats that nature, mankind and animals throw against them. Tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms pose a frequent danger. Then there are the ditch diggers who cut underground lines, the loggers who drop trees onto above-ground lines and the barges that run into river-spanning towers.

And let’s not forget the vultures. There have been documented instances of large birds knocking out power lines. A buzzard perched on a power line in a sub-station might take flight, releasing what Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning for Dominion Virginia Power, politely refers to as a “streamer.” The material creates a connection between a conductor and a tower, and kaboom! Says Curtis: “It’s not uncommon on a landfill [near a power station] to find a dead buzzard on the ground.”

It’s Curtis’ job to preserve the reliability of Dominion’s electric grid, which serves roughly five million Virginians and a not inconsiderable number of North Carolinians in the face of fluctuating temperatures, power surges, foreseeable threats like storms and hurricanes, and crazy stuff like an uncontrolled emission of buzzard poop that no one can predict.

The good news is that the electric grid is more robust than it was on August 14, 2003, around 2 p.m., when a high voltage power line in northern Ohio became overloaded, heated up, drooped, brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down. The voltage in the system found alternate routes and overloaded new lines, three of which shut off. A cascade of failures ripped through southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. Fifty million people lost power for up to two days in the worst blackout in North American history.

As disruptive as the infamous 2003 Northeast Blackout was for electricity customers — it contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion — it was traumatic for the electric power industry, which has since re-engineered the North American grid to ensure, hopefully, that nothing similar happens again.

The bad news is that new threats to the grid, what some have called the world’s largest and most complex machine, are emerging: an electro-magnetic pulse from nuclear weapon, cyber-attacks, terrorist sabotage and, more prosaically, a re-structuring of the grid for environmental purposes that entails shuttering stable, reliable coal-fired power plants and plugging in intermittent power sources such as solar and wind power. The utility has a host of critics who maintain that it’s moving too slowly on reducing CO2 emissions, it’s too stodgy about implementing new smart grid technology, it’s insensitive to landowner rights, its transmission lines are blasting through Virginia’s cultural heritage. And they all have a point. But, then, it’s not the critics’ job to keep the lights on. It’s Dominion’s. And the stakes are very high.

As part of my coverage of energy and environmental issues (sponsored by Dominion), I determined that I needed to learn a lot more about how the electric grid works — not the distribution lines that run through our neighborhoods but the backbone of the system, the high-voltage transmission lines that transport electricity from power plants to sub-stations where the voltage is stepped down to levels for transfer to the distribution lines. I asked David Botkins, director of media relations, for a tour of the Dominion Operation Center in Henrico County. Not only did he agree, he lined up Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning, as the tour guide.

The operation center in Innsbrook takes security seriously. Visitors are not allowed admittance to the main operations room itself but to a viewing room, with movie theater-style seating, a locked door and a retractable screen that is kept closed except for scheduled viewings. No photography was allowed. I was only the third journalist granted admittance to the viewing room in 11 years. The others were a reporter from NPR and a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or whether the subject was just so esoteric that most journalists never think to ask.

The viewing room opens onto a much larger room — the brain of Dominion’s electric grid — with about a half dozen work stations and a massive wall board. The wall schematic displays the 6,400 lines of transmission line in the Dominion system: 500 kv lines in green, 230 kv lines in blue, and 115 kv lines in red. Bulbs light up at critical junctures like power plants, sub-stations and other important nodes to indicate an “abnormal” condition.

In Curtis’ ideal world, the board is blank — no lights. That means everything is functioning entirely normally. (Ironically, everything being normal would be an abnormal situation; there is always something going on.) A light is not necessarily a cause for alarm: Often it simply means that a facility is down for planned maintenance, as was the case for a Pentagon City substation that lit up like a Christmas tree the morning I visited. But every light makes the job of keeping the grid stable just a little more complicated.

Dominion runs a computer program every three minutes to check for trouble in the system. As a double check, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part, also runs a computer program. There is zero tolerance for allowing a situation that might lead to a melt-down. The standard set by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) is to keep at least “two contingencies” away from a crisis. In other words, the system must maintain enough redundancy to accommodate two unplanned outages in extreme conditions. All it takes to shed load, says Curtis, is “a one in a million chance of a breakdown.” Continue reading

You Know Things Are Bad When the Turnaround Team Quits

Richmond city hall: out of control

Richmond city hall: out of control

City of Richmond finances are such a mess that Mayor Dwight Jones hired a special turnaround team around the beginning of the year to fix it. Now key members of that team, City Finance Director Paul Jez and Controller Leon Glaster, are bailing.

“I just realized that I wasn’t the right fit for the city at this particular point in time,” Jez told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I had reached the point that I wasn’t happy coming to work.” The challenges, he added, “are far greater than … I could have imagined. If I had known last year what I know today, I don’t know that I may have made a different decision.”

The city is months late in completing its 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. City officials have cited employee turnover, a lack of training and challenges in implementing a new financial system as reasons for missing the deadline. The city’s current external auditor, Cherry Bekaert, basically fired the city as a customer effective next year, citing a dysfunctional working environment.

Bacon’s bottom line: When the outside auditors and key players in the turnaround team quit, something is severely wrong in the City of Richmond administration. No longer is this a problem that Mayor Jones can delegate to someone else. He needs to forget about baseball stadiums, children’s hospitals and Redskins training grounds, and give his total unremitting focus to figuring out what’s broken and then fixing it. Richmond has seen more than its fair share of administrative scandals already. If city hall loses control of its finances, it loses control over every department in city hall.