When Dynamic Pricing Meets Energy Storage

When Dynamic Pricing Meets Energy Storage

Other states are targeting energy storage as an industry of the future but Virginia may have the most hospitable climate for it.

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Towards a Smarter Grid

Towards a Smarter Grid

Dominion Virginia Power is using big data to increase the reliability of its electric distribution network. The result: Fewer disruptions and shorter outages for customers.

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An Intractable Dilemma

An Intractable Dilemma

When Dominion shuts down the Yorktown Power Station, Virginia's Peninsula will need another source of electric power. Dominion says a 500 kV transmission line over the historic James River is the the best. Conservationists disagree.

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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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Towards a Smarter Grid


Dominion Virginia Power is using big data to increase the reliability of its electric distribution network. The result: Fewer disruptions and shorter outages for customers.

by James A. Bacon

One day earlier this month, 10,000 people living in Fairfax County lost their electric power around 7:30 a.m. Thanks to sensors and devices that Dominion Virginia Power had installed in its electric distribution system, company operators were able to quickly identify and isolate the problem. Fifteen minutes later, they had restored service to 9,000 residents; within half an hour, electric power was back online for everyone.

If you’re a Dominion customer and it seems as if you’re suffering fewer and shorter electrical outages, it’s not your imagination. Harnessing data to target maintenance spending with better precision, the power company has made a concerted effort over the past decade to improve the reliability of its electric service. Since 2008, Dominion’s 2.5 million customers have experienced a 26% decline in minutes lost to routine service disruptions (excluding major storms) when calculated on a three-year rolling average.

“We’re data driven. We’re a six-sigma company,” says Steven Chafin, director of reliability. Dominion, he says, has evolved from a company employing rough industry rules of thumb to one that collects data across the distribution system to drive continuous improvement.

Average customer minutes without electric service, excluding major storms, three-year rolling average

System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI): three-year rolling average of annual customer minutes without electric service, excluding major storms.

Comparing reliability performance to that of other power companies is difficult because each utility contends with different terrain, weather and settlement patterns. Dominion benchmarks against itself, tracking the performance of 35,000 miles of overhead electric lines, 22,000 miles of underground lines and thousands of miles of high-capacity transmission lines. The numbers exclude major storm events, which are so random and are of such a magnitude as to obscure trends in routine operations. Five different events since 1998 — the Christmas Eve ice storm, Hurricane Dennis, Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Irene and the Derecho wind storm — caused massive outages that took eight to fifteen days to fully restore.

A 2015 J.D.Power survey of electric utility customers found that the quality and reliability of electric power is a major factor influencing customer satisfaction nationally. Dominion scored a customer satisfaction ranking of 684, above average for large utilities and an improvement from 661 in 2013.

The heart of Dominion’s reliability initiative is a portfolio of more than a dozen programs ranging from tree-and-brush clearance to the upgrading of neighborhood transformers. “We adjust our investment in these programs annually,” says Chafin. The company allocates capital to programs that offer the greatest bang for the buck.

In 2015 more than a quarter of Dominion’s reliability spending was dedicated to clearing trees and brush, the greatest source of downed power lines, Chafin says. The company once hewed to a regular, three-year cycle for pruning vegetation near overhead lines. It was a reasonable rule of thumb, but analysis of the data showed that tree-related outages could be improved — some places need trimming more frequently, others less often, depending upon how fast the trees grow and the voltage of the line, among other factors. (Higher-power lines increase the chances of electricity arcing from the line to a nearby tree.)

The second largest reliability initiative is the “capital asset rebuild” program. Much of Dominion’s capacity was installed in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, an era with less advanced technology and less rigorous performance standards. Improving the design of older distribution facilities and rebuilding them to current standards reduces the number of disturbances.

Under its circuit reconditioning initiative, Dominion began ranking the performance of each of its 1,800 circuits for preventable failures and prioritizing the worst performers for fixing. Then, diving deeper, the company started collecting data on breakers, reclosers and fuses in each circuit, some 180,000 devices in all.

The neighborhood transformers program addresses increasing demand in residential neighborhoods. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the company installed distribution lines and transformers to meet electricity demand of an era before air conditioning, big-screen televisions, computers, appliances and other energy-sucking devices. The same houses today draw more electricity and transformers can get overloaded. To deal with the problem, Dominion has replaced 4,000 transformers during periods of low demand. That proactive maintenance, says Chafin, is preferable to waiting until a transformer blows out on a hot summer afternoon.

As much as electric customers fume at routine disruptions, the lengthy storm-related outages are the ones they really remember, says Le-Ha Anderson, manager for media relations. “When electricity stops, life kind of stops.”

Last year Dominion submitted to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) a plan designed to reduce the length of major-storm outages by burying critical stretches of overline wire. High winds blow branches and other objects into power lines and knock them out. Undergrounding the electric distribution system statewide would be prohibitively expensive — on the order of $83 billion, according to an SCC report. That would amount to thousands of dollars per customer and cost generations to complete, Chafin says. The benefits don’t justify the cost.

After examining the data, however, Dominion discovered that 20% of overhead lines were responsible for a disproportionate percentage of outages and time lost. By burying just the most outage-prone taps lines (the small lines that stem from feeder lines to individual houses), the company calculated, it could cut average restoration times after major storms in half. Dominion said the program would cost only $2 billion up front. (An SCC report concluded that the program would cost customers $6 billion in capital costs, property and income taxes, and financing costs over the life of the assets.)

In a hearing before the SCC last year, Dominion asked the commission to approve the first stage of the project, covering 526 miles of tap lines at an initial investment of $263 million. The project would require a rate adjustment of $24.4 million in the first year, less than $1 per month on the average electric bill.

Consumer groups opposed the petition. Testified the Attorney General’s consumer counsel:

Despite the unprecedented size of the proposed [Strategic Underground Plan], the company has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis, has not provided any estimate regarding reliability improvements or economic benefits to customers, and has not considered any lower-cost alternatives.” Based on this record, we cannot conclude that it is reasonable, and in the public interest for Dominion to invest $263 million — and ultimately to charge customers over $700 million — for the first portion of the SUP…

The SCC proposed instead that Dominion conduct a pilot program targeting tap lines with the worst reliability record to gather data for a realistic cost-benefit analysis. Dominion has not publicly said whether it plans to submit a new proposal.

Meanwhile, the company is applying a cautious test-and-learn approach to integrating solar energy into its energy mix. Dominion worries that the intermittent shining of the sun creates fluctuations in voltage that could disrupt the transmission and electric systems. With new solar projects in its North Carolina service territory and the proposed Remington industrial-scale facility in Virginia, the company is building experience with solar that will enable it to model the impact of larger-scale projects in the future, says Anderson.

Whatever the future of solar facilities and underground lines, Dominion’s collection and analysis of data is likely to improve reliability in routine operations for years to come.

The Assimilation of Hispanics in Virginia

Source: WalletHub

by James A. Bacon

WalletHub strikes again, this time compiling an ingenious set of statistics to measure Hispanic assimilation in American culture. One surprising finding (surprising to me, at least) is that Virginia ranks 8th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the degree to which Hispanics are assimilated, as gauged by a mix of cultural, educational and economic metrics.

Virginia stands out for the “economic” assimilation of Hispanics, ranking No. 2 in the country. WalletHub measures economic assimilation by earned income, labor force participation, unemployment and poverty rates, and home and business ownership rates.

The Old Dominion ranks 17th nationally by cultural and civic affiliation, which reflects English language proficiency, the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics who are naturalized citizens, veteran status, and voter engagement.

But the state ranks only 23rd nationally for educational assimilation, a ranking that incorporates the percentage of Hispanics who graduated from high school and college, NAEP scores, ACT scores and SAT scores.

Vermont has the highest overall assimilation ranking in the country, and West Virginia the second highest. In Vermont, Hispanics comprised only 1.6% of the population in 2012, and only 1.3% in West Virginia. So, I wondered, was the assimilation rate mainly a function of the Hispanic percentage of the population? It stands to reason that the pressures to assimilate are much higher in communities where Hispanics are a tiny minority than where they can form their own communities and preserve their culture.

So, I ran a correlation analysis of each state’s WalletHub rank with the percentage of Hispanics in each state’s population. I was surprised to see how weak the correlation was:


The R² is only 0.0933, meaning that less than 10% of the variation in assimilation by state can be explained by the size of the Hispanic population within that state. For what it’s worth, Virginia (the red diamond) has a much better rank (closer to 1) than would be predicted by the percentage of Hispanics in its population. But other variables are probably far more important.

One variable worth exploring would be country of origin. Florida ranks high in Hispanic assimilation (6th highest in the country) even though Hispanics accounted 23% of the population in 2012. That probably can be explained by the large number of Cubans, many of whom were educated when they emigrated to the United States. Similarly, Puerto Ricans emigrating to the United States have a different profile than Mexicans, Central Americans, Brazilians and Venezuelans.

Another possibility is the diversity of countries of origins. In California, for example, the Hispanic population is largely Mexican. Mexicans in the Golden State bond with one another and form culture-perpetuating communities more easily than can, say, a mix of Cubans, Brazilians and Ecuadorans.

Of course, my operating assumption is that assimilation is a good thing. I want to see Hispanics (well, the ones who came here legally) move into the cultural, economic and political mainstream. Not everyone shares that goal. Some Hispanics are militant about preserving their cultural identity, as is their right. Also, the ideology of “cultural diversity” looks upon assimilation as a form of cultural imperialism. Some people want to keep Americans divided by race and ethnicity for the purpose of political exploitation.

However it happened, Hispanics appear to be assimilating reasonably well in Virginia.

Income, Ethnicity and Student Indebtedness

by James A. Bacon

Both sides of America’s ideological divide acknowledge that student debt is a huge and growing problem, and both sides deem the climbing delinquency rate on student loans to be a bad thing. The question is what to do about it. The Obama administration has chosen to target private career colleges, whose students accumulate disproportionately large loans and fall behind on their debt payments at disproportionately high rates.

As the Obama administration points out, students at for-profit colleges represent only about 13 percent of the total higher education population, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. “Higher education should open up doors of opportunity, but students in these low-performing programs often end up worse off than before they enrolled: saddled by debt and with few—if any—options for a career,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a press release last year.

The recent publication by the Department of Education (DOE)’s online College Scorecard” was designed to bring some transparency to the cost and performance of public colleges, private not-for-profit colleges and private for-profit career colleges. There is no question that attendees of for-profit institutions experience are far more likely to fall short on student loan payments. But for-profit institutions argue that their programs aren’t the problem. The problem is that their students consist disproportionately of low-income and minority students who have trouble carrying their debt load regardless of the type of educational institution they attend.

Drawing upon College Scoreboard data, I decided to look and see what the situation looked like for Virginia-based institutions. Do private, for-profit colleges in the Old Dominion fit the stereotype of preying upon low-income and/or minority students and saddling them with unmanageable levels of debt?

First, I collected College Scoreboard data on (a) for-profit colleges, (b) community colleges, and (c) two public universities with high percentages of low-income and minority student bodies, Norfolk State University and Virginia State University. Then I plotted four different variables against the percentage of students at each institution that failed to pay at least $1 of the principal balance on their federal loans within three years of leaving school.

One logical explanation for the failure to pay down debt is low post-school earnings of students. The lower a student’s earnings, the heavier the burden of student-loan debt, whatever the size. There is indeed a modest correlation between earnings and debt troubles, as seen in this chart:

Data source: College Scoreboard

The R² of 0.125 suggests that about 1/8th of the variability in students’ ability to support their debt hinges on how much they earn after they leave college (making no distinction between whether they graduate or not). That’s not insignificant, but it’s less important than other variables.

Next I looked at the size of the monthly student-loan payments. All other things being equal, students with larger monthly payments, I conjectured, would have a harder time keeping up with their debt than students with smaller payments. This hypothesis is borne out by the numbers.


The R² of 0.2642 was twice as high as that for post-college earnings, suggesting that this variable has twice the explanatory value as post-college earnings. Continue reading

Virginia’s Tax Code the 35th Most “Unfair”

Source: Insitute for

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. (Click for larger image.)

On the subject of state and local taxes (see previous post), a 2015 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy says that Virginia has the 35th “most unfair” state and local tax system in the United States. By “unfair,” the Institute means regressive — poor households pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than do affluent households. As seen in the chart above, the lowest 20% the lowest-income families in Virginia pay 8.9% of their income, while the top 1% of richest families pay 5.1%.

Presumably, 35th most unfair is equivalent to the 16th most fair. In other words, despite the pro-business slant of Virginia’s tax code, it does not load as much of the burden on low-income citizens as the codes of other states.

I would expand the definition of what constitutes a “fair” tax code. The “fairest” tax code is that which does most to stimulate job creation. A weak labor market is the major explanation for the lack of wage growth in the United States. A tax regime that supports job creation, like that proposed by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, arguably would indirectly help wage growth, which would do far more to help the bottom 20% than tweaking the tax code to make it more progressive. A progressive tax code that inhibits job creation does no favors to the poor.

Update: I have re-written extensive portions of this post. In the original version, I had failed to comprehend that the 35th most “unfair” equated to 16th most “fair.” Thanks to reader “Slowlane” for pointing out the obvious. All I can say in defense of my carelessness is, “Duh!”


Job Stimulus through Tax Reform

free_lunchby James A. Bacon

It is an axiom of economics that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Like Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, the adage is universally true… most of the time. Just as Newtonian physics breaks down at the quantum level, however, the free-lunch maxim breaks down in the realm of taxes. Some taxes depress economic activity so much that replacing them with less harmful taxes stimulates economic growth and job creation while remaining revenue-neutral.

Finding the right combination of taxes is the animating force behind the four-year effort of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (TJI) to restructure Virginia’s tax code. Working with Chmura Economics & Analytics, President Michael Thompson introduced the idea in 2012 and has been refining the approach ever since. The Institute has just published an update.

In the past year, Thompson has been talking to groups representing business, municipal government and tax reform to identify a restructured tax system for Virginia that would be not only economically beneficial but politically palatable. The approach that emerged from the years-long process would eliminate three counterproductive business taxes — the Business Professional and Occupational License tax, the Machine & Tools tax, and the Merchants Capital tax — and replace lost revenue by expanding the sales tax to encompass currently exempt services. The health care sector would remain exempt.

Of the 23 scenarios examined, the one that produced the most positive economic benefits was “Scenario 5,” which included the reforms noted above plus eliminating the state’s bottom two personal income tax brackets (up to $5,000) and shaving the other two brackets by 9.25%. According to Chmura, the results would be:

  • 79,000 increase in private employment
  • $287 million increase in investment
  • $2.85 billion increase in real disposable income
  • $8.4 billion increase in state GDP

One important caveat: Thompson describes the economic model as a “dynamic tax/spending” model. If I correctly understand the meaning of that phrase, the model achieves revenue neutrality by including in its forecast revenues generated by the economic growth. While I prefer dynamic analysis to static analysis (basing tax policy on the assumption that changes in tax policy have no effect on real-world economic behavior), the approach does entail an extra layer of assumptions, which in turn introduces an added element of uncertainty to the analysis.

If Governor Terry McAuliffe wants to put Virginians back to work, tax policy may be the biggest lever he has at his disposal. He needs to give the idea serious consideration.

George Mason Profs: Prosecute Climate Deniers

Jadadish Shukla (right) receiving award in India.

Jagadish Shukla (right) receiving Padma Shri Award in India.

by James A. Bacon

Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University climate scientist, thinks corporate climate deniers should be criminally prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.

Corporations and other organizations have “knowingly deceived” the American people about the risks of climate change, wrote Shukla and nineteen other scientists (five of whom also are GMU professors) in an open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.”

Wow. Is this what science has come to in the United States today — seeking criminal prosecution of those who espouse different views? The implications of this mindset are absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, only 20 scientists signed the letter, so we can be hopeful that the thinking expressed therein is not representative of most climate scientists or even climate alarmists generally — although the missive does cite as its inspiration a proposal championed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

The premise is that fossil fuel companies, like the tobacco companies before them, are knowingly and fraudulently disseminating false science. Barry Klinger, also a GMU climate scientist, insists that the letter signatories aren’t trying to throw climate skeptics in jail or repress their right to free speech — just squelch the right of companies engaging in fraud to sell a product that does harm.

In a Q&A on his website, Klinger is sensitive to the charges of “ideologically based legal harassment.” That’s how he described former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s aborted investigation of Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate scientist whose name was prominent among those sullied in the East Anglia email scandal. “Apparently,” writes Klinger, “there are some who believe it is the return of the Inquisition to investigate a giant corporation but a good deed to investigate an individual scientist.”

In other words, while Klinger disapproves of Cuccinelli’s subpoena of Michael Mann’s emails — Cuccinelli never got the emails, by the way — but thinks ideologically based criminal prosecutions are OK if the targets aregiant corporations.” Pardon me for failing to see any meaningful differences between the two cases. If one is wrong, so is the other. Of course, the ultimate goal of the letter signatories is not to pursue justice but to de-fund and de-legitimize those with opposing views while maintaining their own sources of funding from government and foundations as sacrosanct.

Which brings us back to Mr. Shukla, Klinger’s colleague at GMU and lead signatory to the letter. Shukla is a scientist of some renown, who specializes in building computerized climate models and has served as a lead author for the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He has done work reconstructing the climate of the Mediterranean world in the Roman era that I, as a serious amateur student of 1st-century Palestine, find fascinating.

I am not remotely qualified to judge the scientific value of Shukla’s work, but I do feel competent to comment upon his foray into public policy. It appears that climate alarmism, to riff off an old Saturday Night Live routine, has been bery, bery good to Mr. Shukla. Roger Pielke Jr., a climate scientist himself, notes that Shukla runs his government grants through a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, the Institute of Global Environment and Society, Inc. The Institute raked in $3.8 million in 2014, from which Shukla paid himself $293,000 in reportable compensation and his wife Anne Shukla $146,000 as a business manager. It’s not bad money, considering that Shukla also received total compensation of $250,000 as a professor and chair of the GMU Climate Dynamics department. That would make Shukla slightly more highly compensated than GMU President Angel Cabrera — and I’m betting that Cabrera’s wife doesn’t knock down a $146,000-a-year salary for work related to his job as university president.

Shukla also has been granted numerous awards and medals, including the 2012 Padma Shri Award from the government of India. In sum, he is richly rewarded financially and with status conferred by his peers for his work building global climate-change models.

I wonder if Mr. Shukla’s climate models predicted the actual, real-world temperatures of the past 18 years. The mean temperature increase has been zero, as measured by satellite readings, and within the statistical margin of error, as measured by terrestrial readings. If after the expenditure of millions of dollars Mr. Shukla has failed to forecast those readings and yet persists in raising the cry of catastrophic climate change, could we conclude, using the logic he applies to others, that his work was not only in error but fraudulent, motivated by the desire to continue the flow of lucrative research contracts — and not only fraudulent but economically devastating because it justifies the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to combat an exaggerated threat?

Shukla certainly knows the stakes. As he himself is quoted in 2011 as saying: “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

Ordinarily, I would not be inclined to equate Mr. Shukla’s behavior with criminality, but it does seem reasonable to apply to him the same criteria he applies to others. Perhaps he should be more careful about what he asks for. Once the precedent of criminalizing science has been set, some future administration might decide Shukla falls on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

The Case for a Regional Approach to Economic Development

warehouseby James A. Bacon

The economies of 17 Virginia localities and one North Carolina locality in the Hampton Roads region are more inter-related than they were 10 years ago. Almost two-thirds (more than 65%) of all workers in the metropolitan statistical area commute to jobs outside the jurisdiction where they live — up from less than 60% in 2005, according to a new report, “Our Jobs Are Also Your Jobs,” published by the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance.

That fact has profound implications for economic development strategy, argue the report’s authors James V. Koch and Vinod Agarwal with Old Dominion University. Political leaders of Hampton Roads jurisdictions act as if “the only really good economic development project is the one that is located squarely inside their own city our county,” they write. What that assumption overlooks, however, is the extent to which the economic impact — and benefits — are diffused throughout the metropolitan economy.

Koch and Agarwal gave the hypothetical example of a new warehouse facility built in Suffolk to serve the growing cargo business flowing through the ports in Norfolk and Portsmouth. Suppose that warehouse employs 250 people averaging $50,000 annual pay (including managerial salaries but not including fringe benefits). Here is how they predict those jobs, income and sales tax revenues would be distributed geographically.


In this example, while Suffolk would enjoy the biggest impact, the benefits would be broadly distributed through the region. Suffolk residents would reap about one-third the jobs, income and sales tax revenues. Yet, to pick a different locality, the project also would create 20 jobs for Virginia Beach residents and generate $40,000 a year in additional sales tax revenues.

Moreover, the Suffolk warehouse would spend money on products and services from area businesses, which also would be distributed geographically.

“When more than 65 percent of individuals cross city and county lines to travel to their place of employment, it is inevitable that economic benefits will be widely diffused,” write Koch and Agarwal. “The moral to the story is that regional cooperation and regional economic development efforts make sense. … Parochial approaches to economic development are not likely to achieve great success — if success is interpreted to mean capturing the economic benefits that are generated by a new or expanded business. … The economic success of one city or county soon becomes another’s.”

Bacon’s bottom line: What applies to Hampton Roads applies to every other metropolitan region in Virginia. Nowhere in Virginia do political boundaries coincide with economic boundaries. From a regional perspective, economic development is best pursued as a regional enterprise.

Koch and Agarwal highlight an important insight, although they do overlook a critical facet of economic development that will not change without a dramatic re-write of Virginia’s tax code: The locality where a new warehouse, manufacturing plant or corporate facility locates captures 100% of the property tax revenue. Because property tax is the largest single source of local revenue in Virginia, local governments are highly motivated to see to it that a particular project lands within their boundaries. Unless subsidies are offered to attract the investment, such facilities are a big winner for the locality in question because business operations require little in the way of public services. Indeed, the fact that 2/3 of a company’s employees are located outside the jurisdiction means the locality in question is saddled with the cost of providing educational and other government services to only 1/3 of the workforce. Thus, ironically, the more economically interdependent the localities of a region are, the more local governments are incentivized to capture the tax benefits of bagging a corporate investment.

The only way to change that dynamic is to change the tax code to allow for (or require) the regional sharing of revenue from commercial and industrial property. And that will never happen because any change would create winners and losers, and the losers would fight like hell to thwart it.

But the Koch-Agarwal paper does make a sound argument for supporting regional economic development organizations like the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance. Fortunately, most Virginians get it, and a regional approach to economic development predominates in the Old Dominion.

Out of Action Today

wedding-bellsHonorable Daughter Number One is getting married tomorrow in North Carolina, and I have a number of fatherly duties to attend to this weekend. Sorry, but no posts until next week!


The Rule of Firsties

Statue of Captain John Smith overlooking the James River

Statue of Captain John Smith overlooking the James River

by James A. Bacon

I was chatting the other day with a friend, a William & Mary professor living in Williamsburg, about the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line project (see “An Intractable Dilemma“). Despite the high stakes involved, he said, he hadn’t paid much attention to the controversy, finding it hard to generate sympathy for a bunch of rich retirees in Kingsmill Resort raising a ruckus about their viewsheds.

His response amused me, for the controversy whirling around Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed construction of a 500 kV transmission line across a historic stretch of the James River is a lot more consequential than the views enjoyed by a few rich guys living on the river. The transmission line, designed to head off rolling blackouts for some 500,000 people living on the Virginia Peninsula, would traverse the closest thing that many Virginians have to sacred ground — “Virginia’s founding river,” as one foe described it to me.

I totally understand the concerns of the transmission line foes — even those of millionaires sipping martinis on the patios of their mansions as they soak up the river views. Plutocrats are people, too. But after several years of writing about controversial infrastructure projects in Virginia — highways, gas pipelines, transmission lines — I worry whether we have created institutional gridlock. At the rate we’re going, it will be impossible to build almost anything anymore.

The U.S. 460 Connector project was done in by wetlands. The U.S 29 Bypass ran into a buzzsaw of opposition engendered in part by fears that automobile exhaust would harm the health of children in nearby schools. (For what it’s worth, I was highly skeptical of both projects on economic grounds.) Now two proposed gas pipelines are being contested on a variety of grounds, the most potent of which is that, even though the pipelines are underground, landowners can’t abide the grassy right-of-way above ground. Businesses can’t even build wind turbines in the state because they’ll ruin the natural beauty of mountain ridges.

Think of all the project disqualifiers out there: wetlands, archaeological sites, old burial grounds, rivers, streams, wells, eagles’ nests, sturgeon breeding grounds, Indian tribal territories, schools, historical sites, and mountain ridge lines — and that’s just off the top of my head. Making the problem immeasurably worse for anyone wanting to build infrastructure, everyone’s got a viewshed and everyone wants to keep it as pristine as possible on the not-unreasonable grounds that the intrusion of ugly industrial infrastructure will hurt their property values. If eagles’ nests and burial grounds put thousands of acres off limits to development, view sheds rope off thousands of square miles.

There’s a philosophical issue worth exploring here. Whose viewshed matters? When Captain John Smith set foot upon Jamestown Island, Virginia was pristine. Waves of settlers descended upon the colony and chopped down much of the forest. No one objected (other than the Indians, and the least of their problems was the loss of picturesque views). Then came railroads and industry, but no one protested the loss of viewsheds. Then came roads and highways, and no one objected to them either. It wasn’t until the development of zoning codes and the growth of the environmental and conservation movements that viewsheds became a matter of concern. In the past few decades a new definition of property rights has come into play — the right to a view, asserted by the guy who got there first, over other peoples’ property. Call it the Rule of Firsties.

I’m far more sympathetic to property owners who want to preserve view sheds on their own land from disruption caused by utilities requiring easements, as is typically the case with property owners fighting the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines. These people should be compensated for their loss of property values. I’m less sympathetic to those who assert a right to views of other people’s property. (In the case of the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line, the controversy is mainly over the view shed of the river, a commons.)

That reminds me of a story about the hamlet of Waterford, a community in Loudoun County that had preserved its character intact since the days of its founding by Quakers in the 18th century. The houses fronted on charming small-town streets; the back yards looked upon bucolic farmland. Several years ago, a developer acquired (or threatened to acquire) a neighboring farm and proposed developing a subdivision there. Talk about disrupting a viewshed! What made Waterford residents different from others is that they didn’t sue to deprive the developer his right to build on his property. If I recall the story rightly, they raised money to buy out his property and set up a trust to preserve their viewshed in perpetuity.

Waterford did not invoke the Rule of Firsties. But across Virginia, other people are doing so. As long as Virginia’s population and economy continue growing, we will need new roads, pipelines, transmission lines and other infrastructure. We have to find a way to build these things. At the same time, Virginia is a state that values history and property rights. We do not achieve progress by trampling historic sites or property rights. Finding the right balance will be difficult. It helps to remember that the tension between property owners and utilities is built into the nature of things. There are no angels or demons here, just people trying to do the right thing.

Inadequate Effort, Try Again

dunceJohn Butcher, who puts the cranky in Crankysblog, dissed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission for its nothing-burger draft report on “efficiency and effectiveness” of K-12 spending. The 120-page document, he says, ignored what the General Assembly asked it to do. He writes:

Of the nine recommendations, six talk about efficiency; half of the six deal with school buses; only one of the six deals with something that relates to education.  None tells us about the educational effectiveness of our school spending or how to improve it:

  1. Track teacher turnover.
  2. Provide facilities management expertise.
  3. Provide “guidance” regarding sharing information about facilities management best practices.
  4. Consider statewide contract for bus routing and monitoring software.
  5. Provide transportation management expertise.
  6. Assist with transportation management best practices.

As to virtual schooling, JLARC again avoids answering the question.  The three recommendations:

  1. Provide information about online schools.
  2. Estimate costs of online learning.
  3. Compare achievement of virtual v. physical schools

JLARC normally does better work. The advice in this “draft” isn’t bad, it just tweaks the margins. As I noted in a previous post, the last round of efficiency reviews resulted in $37.5 million in annual savings out of $15.7 billion spent, or about 0.2%. That level of savings doesn’t come close to addressing the magnitude of the issues facing our schools.

At the risk of sounding like a 5th-grade school teacher, I advise JLARC to go back, re-read the instructions, and try again.