Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Virginia's biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns.

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Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Ignorami and Elitists

democrats

General Assembly Democrats

Once upon a time, liberal opinion leaders deemed that the lack of a college education made a politician a “man of the people.” As an example of how inessential a sheepskin was, they often  pointed to the performance of President Harry S. Truman, architect of post-World War II containment policy of the Soviet Union. But times have changed and some have decided that the lack of a college degree disqualifies Wisconsin Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker from the White House. Walker, it turns out, completed only three years of college before taking a full-time job. The lack of that essential fourth year of study justifies describing him as a “drop out,” with all the loaded connotations that phrase entails, and raises strong concerns about his fitness for the top spot.

I find it fascinating that liberals, who profess to be tribunes of the common man, consider a bachelor’s degree to be such a critical credential for high office — and the more elite and rarefied the institution, the better qualified the candidate.

republicans

General Assembly Republicans

Which brings me to the Bacon’s Rebellion chart of the day, purloined from the StatChat blog. Drawing from Washington Post data, Luke Juday has created an interactive chart allowing readers to compare the educational qualifications of Virginia legislators.

The data shows that Republican legislators are more likely than Democrats to have not attended college. That gives the Dems ammunition to portray the GOP as a gang of barely literate fools. On the other hand, the data also buttresses the Republican portrayal of the Dems as out-of-touch elitists.

As our friend Don the Ripper might conclude, “Maybe they’re both right.”

– JAB

Carbon Cuts: Why PJM Has a Better Idea

pjm-region-1024x657By Peter Galuszka

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth in Virginia about complying with proposed federal carbon dioxide rules, there seems to be one very large part of the debate that’s missing.

Several recent analytical reports explore using regional, carbon marketplaces to help comply with proposed federal Clean Power Plan rules that would cut carbon emissions by 2030. They conclude that the carbon goals can be attained more cheaply and efficiently by using a regional approach.

The lead study is by the PJM Interconnection, a grid that involves all or parts of 13 states including most of Virginia. Its March 2 report states that “state by state compliance options – compared to regional compliance options – likely would result in higher compliance costs for most PJM states because there are fewer low-cost options available within state boundaries than across the entire region.”

The same conclusion was made by another report by the Washington-based consulting firm Analysis Group on March 16. It states: “PJM’s analysis of compliance options demonstrates that regional, market-based approaches can meet Clean Power Plan goals across PJM states at lowest cost, with retirements likely spread out over a number of years.”

PJM set off in its analysis by setting a price per ton of carbon dioxide emissions with an eye towards the entities being exchanged among PJM-member utilities in a new market. The PJM report shows that electricity generation varies greatly among members. Some are farther along with renewables while others are greatly reliant upon coal.

By exchanging carbon units, some coal plants might actually be kept in service longer while overall goals are still achieved. EnergyWire, an industry news service, quotes Michael Kormos, PJM’s executive vice president for operations, as saying that the market-based carbon exchange, somewhat counterintuitively, might keep coal plants running longer.

“With the renewables and nuclear coming in as basically carbon free, we’re actually able run those coal resources more because they are getting credit from renewables and the nuclear as zero carbon.”

In December, PJM had 183,694 megawatts of generation. Some 67,749 megawatts are from coal-fired units.

Kormos says that a number of coal-fired units are going to be retired in the 2015 to 2030 timeframe regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan, whose final rules will be prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year. The retirements of older coal plants are expected to involve a minimum of 6,000 megawatts of power.

It is curious that very little of this report is being heard in the vigorous debate in Virginia about complying with the Clean Power Plan. What you hear is a bunch of humping and grumping from Dominion Virginia Power and its acolytes in the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission and the media.

This is not a new concept. Carbon trading is active in Europe and has worked here to lessen acid rain.

It is amazing that one hears nothing about it these days. It is shouted down by alarmists who claim that Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and that there’s an Obama-led  “War on Coal.” The New York Times has a front-pager this morning about how Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of actually leading the “War on Coal” propaganda campaign.

Also strange, if not bizarre, is that this approach is precisely market-based which so many commentators on the blog claim to worship. Where are they on the PJM idea? Has anyone asked Dominion, which is running the show in this debate?

Abolition of Parole in Virginia

parole_boardThis is the first of two articles on the abolition of parole in Virginia.

by Sarah Scarbrough

Fathers’ Day of 1986 was  tragic — Detective George Taylor of the City of Richmond Police Department stopped a vehicle for a routine traffic violation. After being pulled over, the driver, Wayne DeLong, shot and killed Taylor. Later, it was found that DeLong had recently been paroled after serving a portion of his sentence for murder.  A few years later, in 1991, Leo Webb, a divinity student at Virginia Union University in Richmond came across another man, James Steele, who appeared to need assistance. Because of his kind heart, Webb stopped to help Steele. Later, Steele went into the bakery where Webb worked, shot and killed him, took his money, and then went out and partied. Again, it was found that Steele was on parole for malicious wounding.

From 1990 to 1995, Virginia experienced a 28% increase in violent crimes like the ones explained above. Furthermore, three out of four violent crimes, including rape, murder, robbery and assault, were committed by recidivists.  Because of these stories and statistics, when George Allen was running for Governor of Virginia in 1993, a main focus of his campaign was on a promise for parole reform. Many believe that this campaign promise was one of the major reasons that he won the election.  The politics involved with “getting tough on crime” typically is very popular among voters. Violent crimes, victimization, or a related type of crime has in some way impacted the majority of families and individuals in the United States. Therefore, the policy stance of “truth in sentencing” and “abolishing parole” was a great talking point and issue. On the other hand, during the campaign, many opponents believed this plan would cost too much and that it was too drastic of a measure.

Upon victory, Allen immediately acted on his campaign promise of abolishing parole. He established in the Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform in 1994, a bipartisan group of judges, crime victims, prosecutors, business leaders, law-enforcement officers, and legal professionals. Further, he called a special session of the General Assembly in September of 1994, in order to have the full attention of the public and legislators on this matter.  The Allen administration and other supporting legislators displayed the urgency of implementing these measures.  It was shared that those convicted of a felony were only serving about one third of their sentence and there were many serving only one sixth.  The average sentence for a first-degree murder was 35 years and only about 10 years were actually served. There were rapists who were sentenced to nine years and only serving four, and armed robbers were serving four of their fourteen-year sentence.

In order to begin changing the laws, discretionary parole needed to be eliminated. Discretionary parole was when an offender would serve a portion of their sentence and be released by the parole board for ‘good behavior.’ Thus, an offender would receive 30 days off their sentence for every 30 days served that they were ‘good.’ As an alternative to encourage good behavior, wardens would be able to offer sentence credits, which could equal up to 54 days off per year; a drastic reduction from the average of 300 days that were granted previously.

In order for judges to be effective in their sentencing, guidelines were also developed.  In doing so, recidivism rates and age relation to those rates were studied. It was found that the longer the inmate spent in jail and the older they were upon release, the less likely they were to engage in further illegal behavior. After age 37, the likelihood of recidivating decreased drastically. Clearly, the main objective of these reforms was to prevent future violent behaviors, but the idea of future revenge had to be taken into account as well. The Commonwealth wanted to send violent criminals a message that Virginia would not tolerate violent behavior, and if such a crime was committed they would stay in prison until they were “too old to commit another one.” As a result, Virginia increased prison time for violent criminals as follows:

  • 100 percent increase for first-time violent offenders
  • 125 percent for first-time murderers, rapists, and armed robbers
  • 300 percent for those with previous convictions for assault, burglary, or malicious wounding
  • 500 percent for those with previous convictions for murder, rape, or armed robbery

In addition, everyone convicted of a violent crime must serve a minimum of 85 percent of the time they were sentenced. Throughout the United States, a criminal typically serves an average of 50 percent of the time they were sentenced.

Through the mildest estimates of actual crimes and convictions, it was found that 4,300 violent felony crimes between 1986 and 1993 would have been prevented, if the ‘Allen plan’ were in place. It was projected that from implementation in 1995 to 2005, 119,000 felonies would be prevented in Virginia, with 26,000 of these being violent crimes. Through this, it is thought that 475 lives would be saved, 3,700 women would not be raped, and over 11,300 armed robberies would not occur. As a result, this would save the public $2.7 billion in direct costs.

Taking effect January 1, 1995, the Allen administration pushed through legislation that placed increased penalties on murder, armed robbery, and rape. The principle of truth in sentencing was created, as well as abolishing parole and increasing the time a violent criminal would spend in jail by five times.  However, opponents argued that abolishing of parole would be the “declaration of war on young black males.” These people insisted that Virginia spend more money on prevention programs, rather than simply focusing on punishment that was a result of “white fear.” These arguments were not heard favorably. It was also argued that the new laws would actually benefit the African American community, which was one fifth of Virginia’s population, more than any other race. Of the ‘preventable’ murders between 1986 and 1993, 65% of the victims were African American. Of the assaults during the same time period, approximately 60% of the victims were African American.

Before the abolition of parole in 1995, Virginia was spending $658 million of taxpayers’ money on recidivists. This number included costs of new arrests, investigations, and trials. Further, from 1995 to 2005, the estimated cost needed to build new prisons to hold the steadily increasing population was $750 million. Although the new parole laws would require new prisons, the prison population would not double, as it was estimated to do if the new laws were not enacted.

Next: Did parole abolition work?

Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the City of Richmond sheriff’s department.

Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

pain_point

Who’s taking the hit — Dominion or rate payers?

Virginia’s biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns. 

by James A. Bacon

One of the biggest stories of the 2015 General Assembly session was lawmakers’ efforts to prepare the state for the oncoming Environmental Protection Agency regulations that will compel Virginia utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 38% from 2005 levels by 2030. Virginia political reporters, as is their wont, covered the debate as a political story, with an emphasis on Dominion Virginia Power’s role in shaping the final legislation. That coverage left me deeply dissatisfied, as I wrote last month in “Does Anyone Really Understand This Dominion Deal?” The argument I advanced then was that no one understood the deal. Legislators were buying a pig in a poke.

The overriding question was, and still is: Who will pay for the restructuring of Virginia’s electric power industry in order to meet EPA mandates? Dominion and the State Corporation Commission contend that write-offs on four coal-fired power plants could go as high as $2.1 billion while ratepayers could be stuck with $5.5 billion to $6 billion to replace the lost capacity with new electric generating facilities — as much as $8 billion all told. Environmental groups argue that energy-efficiency measures could reduce the impact on customers significantly. Still, that’s a lot of pain to spread around. Who will get stuck with the bill — Virginia’s electric utilities, ratepayers or someone else?

I have spent the better part of the past week reading documents, conducting interviews and checking facts. I don’t pretend to have definitive answers. Indeed, there may be no definitive answers. Every time I peeled away one layer of the onion, I reached another layer that raised more questions. But I do think I can clarify the issues and get us closer to the answers. In this blog post I will address how General Assembly legislation impacts Dominion, which supplies 80% of the electric power consumed in Virginia. In the next I will explain how the law affects rate payers.

First, some background…

Last year the EPA issued rules designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions implicated in global warming. Given the way the rules were formulated, Virginia will be required to make especially onerous cuts. In October 2014 the State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff weighed in with a letter contending that the proposed regulation would raise electric rates and jeopardize the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid. In November the McAuliffe administration, which supports the CO2-reduction initiative in principle, followed with a letter suggesting how the proposed guidelines could be made more equitable to Virginia.

Last fall legislators, too, were concerned what impact the EPA regulations would have on Virginia rate payers.  The SCC estimated that shuttering four of Dominion’s five coal  plants would result in a 22% increase to electric rates. In response, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach filed Senate Bill 1349, which he characterized as a “place holding bill” to jump-start discussion of how to deal with the challenge.

An early version of the bill was “very hostile” to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, says Cale Jaffe, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. By the time the bill reached the governor’s desk, however, language that would have made it difficult to shut down the coal plants was stripped out and provisions were inserted to encourage investments in solar energy and energy efficiency. The capital press corps interpreted the legislative drama as a display of Dominion’s political muscle, making frequent mention of its outsized political contributions to legislators and its veritable army of lobbyists and PR staff.

Was the final legislative package, in fact, a giveaway to Dominion? Let’s start with a summary of the main features of the legislation. The new law:

  • Freezes base rates and exempts Dominion from biennial rate reviews for five years. The next rate review will be in 2022.
  • Requires the utility, not customers, to bear the risk of power plant closures due to federal carbon regulations over the next five years.
  • Requires the utility to forgo collecting $85 million in fuel costs from 2014.
  • Accelerates a reduction in fuel-cost cuts by 30 days.
  • Requires the utility, not customers, to bear the risk of all weather events and natural disasters over the next five years.
  • Establishes a pilot energy assistance program for low-income, elderly, and disabled customers.
  • Declares up to 500 MW of utility-scale solar capacity to be in the public interest.
  • Affirms the SCC’s ability to audit Dominion’s books at any time and requires SCC approval before any power plant can be permanently retired.

Now the gory details…

Base-rate freeze. Legislators and Dominion justify the five-year freeze on base rates, which comprise roughly half of the total electric bill, as a way to provide a measure of certainty to both Dominion and consumers as the EPA regs work their way through the system. According to the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates, a group of large industrial customers, this measure would fix Dominion’s base rates at a level deemed by the SCC in the last biennial review as likely to be excessive by $280 million a year. The freeze, critics say, allows Dominion to continue pocketing those excess earnings.

Dominion takes issue with the $280 million excess-earnings figure. That number does not include one-time costs like employee severance, unplanned environmental costs, storm costs and power plant impairments, which added up to $600 million in 2011 and 2012, according to David Botkins, Dominion media relations director. The excess-earnings forecast is meaningless, he says: There are always one-time expenses that must get factored in. Natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms are recurring events. Dominion will continue to be affected by new rules emanating from the EPA. The $280 million number, says Tom Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulation for Dominion Resources, “is a “picture-perfect” forecast of earnings that does not take into account “stuff that happens.” Continue reading

Yes, Let’s Investigate ABC Incident


Governor Terry McAuliffe did the right thing by promptly demanding an investigation into an arrest by ABC special agents of a black University of Virginia student that resulted in a head injury requiring 10 stitches. In the racially inflamed atmosphere we live in today, fueled by national news coverage of deaths of young black men at the hands of white police, emotions are running high. Nobody wants this incident to turn into another Ferguson.

On the one hand, Virginians are rightly concerned about the behavior of ABC agents, who caused a furor last year when they arrested Elizabeth Daly, a white University of Virginia student on the mistaken premise that she was carrying a case of beer. One agent drew a gun and another tried to shatter a window in her car with a flashlight. Citizens rightly wonder if last night’s arrest of Martese R. Johnson was a similar case of excess force.

On the other hand, we need to know all the facts. Martin, who was arrested outside a bar at 12:45 a.m., was charged with obstruction of justice and profane swearing or resisting arrest. It appears from news accounts — and, as we know from the UVa rape case, all news accounts should be considered preliminary and incomplete, and YouTube videos can miss important context — that Martin was intoxicated and resisted arrest. He banged his head on the ground when ABC agents took  him to the ground before handcuffing him. “I go to U.Va., you [expletive] racists,” he yelled, as blood flowed from his cut. “How did this happen?”

As with the UVA rape case, we should refrain from speculation on the basis of incomplete knowledge. Let’s wait for the facts to come in before drawing conclusions.

– JAB

Note to Readers

Late last night, I published a detailed accounting of the impact of SB 1349 on Dominion Virginia Power. I took that story down this morning when Dominion expressed concern about the accuracy of some of the numbers I used. I expect to get an update from Dominion officials this morning, and I will update the article, if justified, and put it back online later today.

This article provides the most detailed media accounting yet published on the legislation and it is imperative to make it as accurate as possible.

– JAB 

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Time For a Fossil Fuel Reality Check

Murray

Murray

By Peter Galuszka

Let’s pause for a moment, catch our breath and realize what is really going on in the world of fossil fuel and climate change.

We’ve heard tons of loosely-based opinion from climate change deniers and drum beaters for the “War on Coal” crowd.

Here are two recent news items:

Coal baron Robert Murray is closing a $1.4 billion deal for Illinois Basin coal. The outspoken, labor-busting  boss who figured prominently in the “War on Coal” campaign during the Mitt Romney presidential run has been picking up reserves in the robust Illinois Basin and in the distressed Appalachians.

His deal for 50 percent of Foresight Energy follows another he did in 2013 worth $3.5 billion to buy five Appalachian mines from Consol.

What does this mean? It shows that coal overall does have a future, especially in the high-sulfur Illinois Basin which has been rediscovered since utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority have been forced to use better scrubbing equipment. Illinois Basin can be twenty bucks a ton cheaper than Appalachian product. He also sees some future left in high coast Appalachian coal.

Stop a moment and consider: new environmental regs promote the use of cheaper coal. Now that coal may not be in the Central Appalachian area of southwest Virginia and West Virginia. But the magic of the market is favoring Illinois Basin product which is simply easier and cheaper to mine as is Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana.

A big problem with some of the commentators on this blog is that they fail to grasp that the U.S. coal industry is a lot bigger than little ole Virginny’s mines that started to play out decades ago. In their world view, their demise is the fault of the bad old federal government, not sharp barons like Murray who is a major contributor to (ahem) the Republican Party. Their brains seem trapped in a geographical warp zone where they cannot imagine things beyond the borders of the Old Dominion.

And while we are on the GOP, let’s consider George Schultz’s oped Sunday in The Washington Post. For those of you who may forget, he was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, the mystical president some of you love and miss dearly.

Schultz’s message is that human based climate change is here. So, stop denying it, get over it and get on with a carbon tax that worked to protect the ozone layer years ago. Yes, they actually worked that out back in Ronnie’s day and a tax and marker system to reduce fluorocarbons actually worked.

Not to add insult to injury, but consider what Schultz wrote: “For example, we can now produce electricity from the wind and sun at close to the same price we pay for electricity from other sources…”

Hmm. Sounds like a wild-eyed, irresponsible greenie. Someone tell Jim Bacon and Dominion Virginia Power.

A Preview of Virginia’s Looming Energy Crisis

Existing Dominion power lines. Photo credit: Daily Press.

Existing Dominion power lines. Photo credit: Daily Press.

by James A. Bacon

Hampton Roads north of the James River could face brownouts or rolling blackouts within two years if Dominion Virginia Power can’t start building a transmission line across the river on a timely basis, the power company informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month. The Daily Press uncovered the letter in a Freedom of Information Act request seeking recent communications about the project.

“We are running perilously close to an unacceptable service reliability risk that is unprecedented in the modern era here in Virginia,” wrote Dominion project manager Wade F. Briggs in the March 6 letter. If the Army Corps doesn’t clear the way for construction of the power line, he said, “We would need to implement load shed plans in North Hampton Roads which would be unacceptable to everyone concerned.” The purpose of the automatic browns and blackouts would be to avoid overloading the transmission grid and setting off uncontrolled, cascading blackouts.

Northern Hampton Roads, a region stretching from Charles City County to Hampton on the Virginia Peninsula, is served by aging coal-fired power plants that Dominion is phasing out to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for the release of mercury and other toxic materials. The transmission line would enable Dominion to wheel in electric power from other sources. But it will take 16 to 17 months to build the $155 million line. Dominion has been pleading for delays in implementing the pollution standards. The state Department of Environmental Quality has granted an exemption from the standards through April 2016. A lawsuit filed by opponents to stop the project has been appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The James River power line controversy is significant on its own terms. There are legitimate trade-offs here. There is no denying that the power line would be unsightly, marring pristine vistas of what the first English settlers saw when they sailed to Jamestown four centuries ago. And there is no reason to disbelieve Dominion’s assertion that failure to build the line, which the company has been doing for years, would put the region at risk for economically damaging curtailment of electric power.

But the controversy is also symptomatic of issues facing the entire state — the canary in the coal mine, so to speak, a harbinger of clashes that will become more endemic and more acute over time as  Dominion struggles to meet a steadily increasing demand for electricity in the face of stricter environmental rules and resistance to the infrastructure — power lines and gas lines most notably — required to deliver that electricity and the natural gas that fuels it.

The coal plants on the Peninsula will be retired to meet EPA regulations restricting the emission of toxic pollutants. Another wave of EPA regulations likely will phase out all but one of Virginia’s remaining coal-fired power plants within another decade to meet the goal of reducing carbon emissions. A battle new brews over how Dominion will replace that capacity — with natural gas, nuclear or renewable fuel sources such as solar and wind power.

Here’s the backdrop: The long-range forecast in Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), updated annually and filed with the State Corporation Commission, indicates that overall  customer demand for energy in its service area will increase by an average annual rate of 1.3% and peak energy (as seen below) will increase at a rate of 1.4%. That growth forecast reflects 17.6% population growth between 2015 and 2029, with commensurate increases of commercial and industrial customers, as well as the increasing use of electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles, which require electric charging. Dominion projects approximately 240,000 such vehicles on the road in its service territory, adding 215 megawatts of additional load and annual energy usage of 853 gigawatt-hours.

peak_load

Not only does Dominion have to replace the coal- and oil-fired plants, it has to bring on new capacity (or buy it on the open market) sufficient to meet the demands of Virginia’s growing population, economy and electric-vehicle fleet. Failure to add generating capacity beyond that already under construction will result in dangerously low reserve requirements — at least 11% is considered desirable — that could lead to blackouts and brownouts in extreme weather conditions.

reserve_margin

How does Dominion propose to meet projected power demand? Continue reading

More Sharks Found in N.C. Sound

Bulls sharks: some of the world's most dangerous

Bulls sharks: some of the world’s most dangerous

By Peter Galuszka

The Pamlico Sound in North Carolina has long been a bellwether of environmental changes. Different temperatures and salinity levels can affect everything from marsh grass to shrimp catches to fish kills.

Now scientists are finding that more potentially deadly sharks are in this shallow, broad estuary that separates the mainland from the Outer Banks. The reason: rising water temperatures.

More bull sharks are being found in the Pamlico Sound, according to Charles Bangley, a doctoral candidate at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

He found 36 juvenile bull sharks in the sound since 2012. Another study found 113 bull sharks from 1965 to 2011. “It’s possible the Pamlico Sound represents a new nursing area for bull sharks,” he told The Virginian-Pilot.

Why so? Warmer water means that female bull sharks are swimming into the sound through narrow ocean inlets to take advantage of more plentiful food. They tend to have their young in the sound.

That’s not all. Two great white sharks, potential man eaters, have been seen in the Outer Banks area. One 14-feet-long female was pinged by satellite on the far west side of the Pamlico Sound in January.

Shark fatalities are rare events on the tourist-heavy Outer Banks. The last fatality was in Corolla in 2009. About eight years before that, a man was killed in the surf near Avon.

I’ve seen plenty of sharks diving 20 miles off Cape Hatteras which is a good place to find them since the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream meet there, bringing in different species.

And, many years ago, when I was working one college summer as a newspaper reporter in Beaufort County, a gill net fisherman came up with a 10-foot dusky shark in the brackish waters of the Pamlico River where sharks are almost never found. Unusually warm and dry weather that summer meant that less fresh water was flowing into the sound from the Pamlico River and the shark had been swimming into the saltier areas.

The weird thing about bull sharks is that their birthing areas are usually in Florida, scientists believe.

Is this more evidence of (dare I say it) climate change? Could be. A few years ago there was news revealing that breeding populations of alligators had moved farther north. They had been in East Lake, N.C. near Nags Head but now were up near the Virginia border.

I’ll let you know when they reach the Potomac.