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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Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Amazon's giant solar power plant will lighten the environmental footprint of the company's growing cluster of Northern Virginia data centers. It won't do much to lighten the tax burden of Accomack County.

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Grid Pro Quo

Grid Pro Quo

The EPA wants to restructure Virginia’s electric grid. Skeptics argue that slashing CO2 emissions will drive electric bills higher. Environmentalists disagree. Who’s right?

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Heh, Heh. Virginia Electricity Less Carbon-Intensive than Its Neighbors’ — without RPS

by James A. Bacon

The Gooze, known in more polite company as Peter G. , is a big fan of solar power and wind power and thinks we ought to have more of both in Virginia. In his most recent post, he seems particularly impressed by the activities of Amazon Web Services, which has announced plans to build the largest solar facility east of the Mississippi in Accomack County and has joined in a large wind project in North Carolina. What Virginia needs to do, he suggests, is enact a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring Virginia electric utilities, like those in neighboring North Carolina and Maryland, to utilize more renewables such as solar, wind and biomass regardless of how much more expensive they may be than conventional power sources.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves exactly where Virginia stands nationally in the emission of Carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is both essential to life and implicated in global warming. The following data comes from “Benchmarking Air Emissions of the Largest 100 Electric Power Producers in the United States,” published by M.J. Bradley Associates, which bills itself as a strategic environmental consulting firm. No, the report was not funded by the Koch Brothers. It was prepared in consultation with Bank of America, several electric utilities and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report looks at two broad measures of carbon intensity: Total CO2 emissions for each state, and the CO2 emissions rate — emissions per megawatt hour of electricity generated. First total CO2 emissions:

total_emissions

Texas is by far the biggest CO2 emitter in the country. That reflects the fact that (1) Texas has a large gross domestic product (GDP) and (2) a fossil fuel-heavy electric generation mix. Note that although Virginia has the 11th largest state economy in the country, it ranks 26th by total CO2 emissions. In other words, Virginia is far more CO2-efficient than the national average.

(This measure is, admittedly, a rough one and overlooks important nuances. For example, Virginia has built one of the nation’s largest clusters of data centers, which consume a tremendous amount of electricity but replace electricity that would have been consumed in other states had businesses not outsourced their computing and data storage to the cloud. On the other hand, Virginia is a net importer of electricity from other states, meaning that some of the CO2 emissions attributed to its economy is allocated to other states.)

emission_rateHere are the numbers for the CO2 emissions rate, which reflects fuel mix. Virginia’s fuel mix includes a lot of zero-CO2 nuclear power as well as natural gas, which, though a fossil fuel, releases less CO2 per kilowatt hour than coal or oil. By this measure, Virginia ranks 38th on the list — lower than the two states with renewable portfolio standards that Peter admires so much, Maryland and North Carolina.

Not only does Virginia emit less CO2 per megawatt hour than its two neighbors, its average electricity costs are lower. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (not funded by the Koch Brothers, by the way), here’s how electric rates compare based on 2013 data:

Virginia — 9.07 cents per kilowatt hour.

North Carolina — 9.15 cents per kilowatt hour.

Maryland — 11.3 cents per kilowatt hour.

And for purposes of comparison, California, the state that has gone “all in” with renewable energy — 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

My point is not that renewable energy is bad. Eventually, the cost of renewables will be competitive with other fuels, and then we should embrace them. My point is that there are trade-offs entailed with imposing renewable energy before it’s ready for prime time. One of those trade-offs is price. Once upon a time, progressives like Peter deemed it outrageous for power utilities to raise their rates on the grounds that a high cost of electricity punished the poor. No longer. Fear of global warming trumps social justice. The irony here is that Virginia’s electric power fleet outperforms North Carolina and Maryland in carbon intensity and price — all without mandated renewables. How about that?

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.

Does Uber Save Lives?

Should have called Uber.

Should have called Uber.

Speaking of safer roads… Consider the impact of Uber on peoples’ driving habits. Richmond Biz Sense reports that more than 1,200 vehicles in the City of Richmond, Chesterfield County and Henrico County have signed up with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up passengers for hire under the Uber banner. That’s more than double the number of traditional taxi vehicles registered to provide service.

Twelve hundred vehicles is a lot of cars, seemingly enough to inundate the Richmond market. But Uber wouldn’t be contracting with all those drivers if there weren’t a demand for the service.

People employ Uber for many reasons, but the one with which I am most acquainted is to avoid drinking and driving. Most people know that driving while intoxicated is an exceedingly bad idea. But if staying alive and not killing others isn’t incentive enough, Henrico County courts are draconian in their punishment of drunk driving.

Many people of my social acquaintance carry breathalyzers with them. If their alcohol levels exceed the legal limit, they call Uber for a ride home. Some friends don’t even bother driving to social functions at all — they call Uber for rides both ways. I don’t know the percentage of Uber riders who are intoxicated, but I’d wager that it’s a high number.

Tough laws, breathalyzers and Uber — it’s a powerful combination. I’m betting that roads in the Richmond region are a lot safer these days.

— JAB

Stricter Penalties, Safer Roads

safety_penalty_correlation
by James A. Bacon

I will concede this upfront: Bacon playing with statistics is like a toddler playing with a gun. Nothing good can come of it. With that word of warning, I ask readers to indulge me for a moment.

WalletHub, the financial advisory website, has come up with yet another listicle — a ranking of the 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) by the strictness of their speeding and reckless driving laws. This is a matter of more than passing interest to me because my son got his driver’s license just last week and my wife is a nervous wreck. Oh, no, it’s drizzling outside — the streets are dangerous. Oh, no, it’s bright and sunny outside — the glare can blind you. Readers who have had wives and teenage drivers know exactly what I’m talking about.

Back to WalletHub… It turns out that Virginia has the sixth strictest penalties in the country for speeding and reckless driving. Knowing the strictures put on teen drivers and drunk drivers, I can well believe that the traffic regimen is tough on speeders as well. But I asked myself a question that WalletHub didn’t answer: Do tough driving laws make a difference? Do they save lives, or do they just punish drivers for no reason?

In the spirit of social scientific inquiry, I compared the WalletHub ratings with data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on the incidence of fatalities per 1 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The results can be seen in the chart above. The Y axis shows the WalletHub ranking, with the strictest states at the bottom and the most lenient states at the top. The X axis shows deaths per million VMT. The red dot shows Virginia.

Assuming I am analyzing the data properly (not something to be taken for granted), Virginia does seem to get some benefit from its strict speeding and reckless driving laws — but not as much as might be expected. The R², a measure of correlation, suggests that 5.6% of the difference in highway fatalities between states is explainable by the variation in speeding and reckless-driving penalties. That’s not a dominant determinant but a non-inconsiderable one. Yet the Old Dominion has the sixth strictest laws in the land but only the 11th lowest fatality rate.

Speeding enforcement and penalties are not the only means to reduce speeding. Other options include lower speed limits, road design and traffic-calming measures, and driver education, especially for young drivers. Other factors may come into play as well. Insofar as fatalities are correlated with driving speed, states with large rural populations driving on country roads may be at greater risk of fatalities, for instance, than largely urban states where city streets have lower speed limits. It is no accident that Washington, D.C. has a lower fatality rate per miles driven than any of the 50 states.

Could Virginia do a better job? My job is to ask the questions. Keener analytical minds are needed to come up with answers.

Note to Subscribers….

Subscribers to the Bacon’s Rebellion email alert received notification of a newly published article about legal issues surrounding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That story was incomplete. I published it by clicking on the wrong button in WordPress, and I deleted it from the blog as soon as I recognized the mistake. My apologies for the confusion.

A Glimpse into the Byzantine World of Virginia Health Care

Murky

Murky

by James A. Bacon

To call the United States health care system Byzantine is to cast a slur upon the ancient empire of that name. A glimpse of the bizarre, Rube Goldberg-esque way in which the system functions in Virginia can be seen in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch article about the state’s Certificate of Public Need (COPN) program.

A state working group is studying whether to scrap or modify the regulatory system, which requires hospitals and other health care providers to seek state approval for new or expanded medical-care facilities and the acquisition of expensive equipment. The system curtails competition by making it difficult for new enterprises to enter the marketplace, and it often ties regulatory approvals to promises to provide charity care.

In 2013, health care providers donated $1.34 billion worth of charity care to comply with the state-mandated obligations, the T-D quotes Peter Boswell, chief of Virginia’s Department of Health Office of Licensure and Certification, as saying. Statewide, 195 certificates of need are conditioned upon requirements of providers to administer free care. As an example of how that might work, the T-D says a cardiac catheterization lab might have a requirement to provide 3.8 percent charity care.

Don’t get me wrong. We need a mechanism for providing health care to poor people who fall between the cracks of government assistance, Obamacare and private insurance. This is just an insanely opaque way of going about it. That $1.34 billion is not subject to any form of market discipline or legislative review. State regulators cut deals with health care providers, and then it’s up to the providers to live up to their obligations. The state lacks the resources to audit compliance.

Assuming hospitals and other providers do comply, who ultimately pays? Do the $1.34 billion in payments come out of hospital profits? Or do hospitals simply pass on the cost by jacking up charges to paying customers? I doubt anyone really knows. If there’s one thing as opaque as the health care sector’s pricing system, it’s health care accounting.

Health care is an inherently complex business, involving trade-offs between price, quality, convenience and other factors that few consumers are equipped to make. That inherent complexity is compounded by layer upon layer of regulation, subsidy, cross-subsidy and other forms of complexity. I don’t see how it’s possible for anyone participating in the industry to make economically rational decisions. No wonder there is so much waste and inefficiency. No wonder costs are out of control. No wonder private health care insurance grows more unaffordable with each passing year. No wonder Congress felt compelled to enact health care “reform” (although the reform known as Obamacare makes the system even more bureaucratic, complex, opaque and uncompetitive).

Eliminating COPN in Virginia is not a silver bullet that will miraculously create a transparent, competitive market-based health care system. Other states have abolished COPN, and their systems are not notably lower cost or more efficient (that I know of). But it is one layer of anti-competitive complexity that Virginia legislators can strip out of the system, thereby making the state marginally less hostile to innovation and competition. Combined with other market-based reforms, it could make a difference.

If Virginia abolished COPN, what would happen to uninsured people who depend upon that $1.34 billion a year in uncompensated care? Aye, there’s the rub. Politically, it may be impossible to dismantle the program. Perhaps we are doomed to living (and dying) with an opaque, irrational and inefficient system.

The Ironies of Virginia’s Growing Diversity

Midlothian’s New Grand Mart taps state’s growing diversity

 By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly immigration is popping up as a major issue in Virginia and the nation.

Virginia Beach has been dubbed a “sanctuary city” for undocumented aliens by Fox News and conservative Websites. GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is scarfing up poll number hikes by calling Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally “rapists” and proposing an expensive new wall project to block off the southern border. Pro-Confederate flag advocates are pushing back against anti-flag moves, but they can’t escape the reality they are conjuring up  old visions of white supremacy, not their version of respectable Southern “heritage.”

So, if you’d like to look at it, here’s a piece I wrote for The Washington Post in today’s newspaper. When I visited a new, international food store called New Grand Mart in Midlothian near Richmond, I was impressed by how large it was and how many people from diverse backgrounds were there.

Looking further, I found one study noting that Virginia is drawing new groups of higher-income residents of Asian and Hispanic descent. In the suburbs, African-Americans are doing well, too.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism ranked 52 cities as offering the best opportunities for diverse groups. One might assume D.C. and Northern Virginia would rank well, and they do. More surprising was that Richmond and Virginia Beach rank in the top 10 in such areas as income and home ownership. True, mostly black inner city Richmond has a 26 percent poverty rate but it seems to be a different story elsewhere.

Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says that economic prosperity and jobs that had been concentrated in the D.C. area, much of it federal, has been spread elsewhere throughout the state. It may not be a coincidence that New Grand Mart was started in Northern Virginia by Korean-Americans who undertook research. It revealed that the Richmond area was a rich diversity market waiting to be tapped. They were impressed and expanded there.

Other areas that do well in the study are Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C. and ones in Texas, which show a trend of job creation in the South and Southwest outpacing economic centers in the Northeast, Midwest and in parts of the West. Another story in today’s Post shows that there are more mostly-black classrooms in Northern cities than in the South. The piece balances out the intense reevaluation of Southern history now underway. A lot of the bad stuff seems to have ended long ago, but somehow similar attitudes remain in cities like Detroit and New York.

This progress is indeed interesting since old-fashioned American xenophobia is rearing itself again.

In Virginia, the long-term political impact will be profound as newer groups prosper. They may not be as inclined as whites to embrace Virginia’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism, such as their emotional mythology of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Their interest in them might be more dispassionately historical.

And, as the numbers of wealthier people from diverse backgrounds grow, they may be less willing to keep their heads down when faced with immigrant bashing. That’s what people of Hispanic descent did in 2007 and 2008 when Prince Williams County went through an ugly phase of crackdowns on supposed illegals. They could strike back with their own political campaigns.

Whether they will be blue or red remains to be seen. It’s not a given that they’d be Democratic-leaning. Farnsworth notes, however, that as more diverse people move to metropolitan suburbs, whites in more rural, lower-income places may become more reactionary out of fear. Hard-working and better-educated newcomers might be out-classing them in job hunts, so they might vote for politicians warning of a yellow or brown peril.

In any case, New Grand Mart presages a very crucial and positive trend in Virginia. It shows the irony of the hard right echo chamber peddling stories designed to inflame hatred and racism, such as the one about Virginia Beach being a “sanctuary” for illegals. In fact, the city is attracting exactly the  well-educated and hard-working newcomers of diverse backgrounds upon whom it can rest its future.

But we’re in an age of bloated billionaires with helmet hairdos and no military experience claiming that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a shot-down Navy pilot who spent five years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison, is not a hero. If Virginia can ignore such time-wasters and embrace diversity, it will be a better place.

Salvaging Wind Power in Virginia

One of these bad boys costs $100,000 to $200,000 per day, and it has to come all the way for Europe -- a big expense for just two experimental turbines.

One of these bad boys costs $100,000 to $200,000 per day, and it has to come all the way from Europe — a big expense for just two experimental turbines.

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.

by James A. Bacon

When Dominion issued a request for bids this spring to erect experimental wind turbines off Virginia Beach, senior executives knew the project would be expensive. Offshore wind farms are built most economically on a scale of dozens or hundreds of turbines. But this project would have only two, and both would incorporate untested technologies. Moreover, there was no supporting maritime infrastructure on the East Coast of the United States. Key components and construction vessels would have to be imported from Europe.

Internal estimates put the cost around $230 million. The cost per kilowatt of power generated would be so expensive that Dominion executives expected the project to be a tough sell to the State Corporation Commission. But they figured they could make the case that the company would learn enough from the turbines that it could bring down costs for large-scale wind development — some 300 turbines — down the road.

So it was an unpleasant surprise when only two companies bid to build the project, and only one of them in full compliance with the contract specifications. And it was even more discouraging when the sole compliant bid came in at more than $375 million.

“We thought we’d have a challenging [approval] process at $230 million,” said Thomas Wohlfarth, vice president for regulatory affairs at a stakeholders meeting Friday to discuss the future of offshore wind in Virginia. “When the cost went to $375 million, we went, “Whoah!’ We like to show a positive net present value to customers. This would be very challenging.”

Until that point Dominion had moved steadily, if ploddingly, ahead with plans to exploit Virginia’s offshore wind resources as a source of renewable carbon-free energy. The company had conducted a cost-reduction study in 2011, completed two internal transmission studies — finding that it could bring in up to 45 megawatts of offshore electricity to its Virginia Beach power grid without significant cost — spent $1.6 million in a blind auction to acquire offshore wind rights, and successfully solicited Department of Energy grants to help underwrite preliminary engineering and design on the two experimental turbines.

The disappointing $375 million bid threw a monkey wrench into Dominion’s rotor. Putting wind development on hold, the company convened in Richmond a gathering of dozens of stakeholders — from business vendors and partners to government officials and environmentalists — to deconstruct what went wrong and to plot a more cost-effective path to full-scale development.

“Dominion really wants to see his project move forward ,” said Mary Doswell,  senior vice president of energy solutions, told the stakeholders. “We need to push our way through, and we need your help to do that.” While she did not say development of the larger offshore wind project would be stymied if the experimental turbines weren’t built, she didn’t deny it either.  It’s not something she had thought about, she responded to a question. “We’ve been so laser-focused on this project that we haven’t considered what might happen.”

The experimental turbines would incorporate state-of-the-art technologies, never tested before anywhere else, that would affect the cost efficiency of a subsequent, large-scale wind development off the Virginia coast. The most feature important would be a hurricane-resilient design affecting the interaction of rotors and blades in high winds. While wind turbines operate in harsh weather conditions in the North Sea, where winds have been known to reach 90 miles per hour, turbines off the Atlantic Coast would be at risk of exposure to Category 3 hurricanes which generate wind speeds of up to 129 miles per hour. “It’s a very robust design,” said Mark Mitchell, the project construction manager.

The experimental turbines also would incorporate a new Alstom design for the drive train, and a twisted jacket foundation for the turbine. The turbines would be placed in a configuration that would enable Dominion to measure what kind of wind wake one turbine creates for another another — critical for determining layout in a wind field of 300 turbines. Additionally, Dominion would test remote monitoring technologies that would allow for predictive maintenance, such as replacing fatigued parts before they wore out.

Dominion expects to learn much else that would help it advance the 300-turbine project. For example, what are the seabed conditions? “You can’t just run a cable out there,” Mitchell explained. Hampton Roads is a major naval base. Is there unexploded ordinance on the sea floor? How hard is the seabed? What are the sand migration patterns? Ideally, the cable is buried a couple of meters underground. Dominion doesn’t want the sand to drift away and leave it uncovered. In a related matter, Dominion needs to know how deep to drive the steel piles underground to provide the needed stability for the turbine. More steel translates directly into higher costs.

Most of the feedback came from Dominion’s contractors and suppliers who helped put the bid together. Several main themes arose from the conversation. Continue reading

Higher Ed as Engine of Social Injustice

tuition_hikesby James A. Bacon

College tuitions have soared over the past several decades, and so have federal grants and subsidized student loans. Many observers of the higher ed scene believe that easy credit has been a driving force behind the tuition hikes: The more Uncle Sam subsidizes student participation in higher education, the greater the pricing power exerted by colleges and universities. But correlation does not necessarily equal causality. Proof that escalating college loans enables tuition hikes has been hard to come by.

Three economists working for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York think they have found the proof. In a new paper, “Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition,” the authors note that federal loan programs have accounted for 90% of all student loan originations since the 2009-2010 school year, and 75% to 80% in the preceding years. Drawing from three separate Department of Education data sets, they show how closely tuition increases track changes in federal lending policy.

When we control for all forms of aid, we find that each additional Pell Grant dollar to an institution leads to a roughly 55 cent increase in sticker price tuition. For subsidized loans, we find a somewhat larger passthrough effect of about 70%. We also find a loading of tuition on unsubsidized loans of 30 percent. All of these effects are highly significant.

Note: To the best of my knowledge, the Federal Reserve Board of New York is not funded by the Koch Brothers or affiliated with the Tea Party.

Bacon’s bottom line: While increased federal support has made it somewhat easier for students to finance their college educations through borrowing, the higher ed establishment captures the majority of the funds. Little of the money has gone to hire more professors, increase faculty pay or otherwise improve the quality of education. Most of it has paid for bloated administrations. Meanwhile, outstanding student-loan debt has skyrocketed to more than a trillion dollars, creating a new class of indentured servants.

This is the hardest evidence yet that one of America’s most ideologically liberal institutional complexes, higher education, is also one of the most exploitative. Colleges and universities talk a good game about social justice, but in the end, they put their institutional prerogatives first.  In the end, higher education has become a powerful engine of social injustice.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

Can’t Beat those Old Nukes for Cheap Energy

Image credit: Nuclear Energy Institute

Image credit: Nuclear Energy Institute

by James A. Bacon

Dominion has shut down both nuclear power units at its Surry County station to repair water leaks. The first one was taken offline over the weekend, the second was deactivated Monday. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The leaks amounted to about 1,000 gallons, all of which was captured and processed for reuse once the reactors are running, [spokesman Rick] Zuercher said. Each reactor’s coolant system operates with about 71,000 gallons of water.

“These happen occasionally. They’re not significant,” Zuercher said. “There are levels of leakage that require us to shut down, but these did not rise to that level. We always try to capture problems when they’re small and fix them so they don’t become big problems.”

The incident follows a leaking pump in January that reduced the Unit 2 reactor to 60 percent capacity during repairs, and a shutdown this spring to refuel the two units. When Dominion shuts down its nuclear units, it has to make up the difference from other sources, either within its own fleet of power plants or by purchasing power from other companies over the PJM Interconnection grid. That energy can be expensive during the peak demand period of the summer.

Every time a nuclear plant shuts down for repairs, it seems to make the news. I suppose it’s the old Three Mile Island syndrome. Stuff that happens at a nuclear power plant is way scarier than the stuff that happens in any other kind of power plant. Other kinds of power plants shut down for maintenance and repairs, too — we just don’t hear about it.

The reality of the situation is that nuclear power plants spend more time online, operating 24/7, than any other type of electricity-generating plant. Based on 2013 data, the Nuclear Energy Institute asserts that nukes operate 90.9% of the time. That handily beats coal- and gas-fired plants and it clobbers wind and solar (although biomass plants experience relatively little downtime). That’s why Dominion Virginia Power can seriously talk about building a third nuclear generator at its North Anna facility despite a mind-numbing price tag measured in the billions of dollars. Not only do nukes generate power two to three times more of the time than alternatives, they tend to be longer-lived — 40 years routinely, and potentially as long as 60 years.

surry

The Surry nuclear station

In its 2015 Integrated Resources Plan, Dominion expressed its intention to inform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intent to “potentially submit” a license application to extend the Surry Power Station Units 1 and 2 for another 20 years. Built in 1972 and 1973, those units are already 40 years old. I presume that the initial construction cost of the two units has been fully written off. Assuming they can be operated safely, extending their life another 20 years would provide incredibly inexpensive power for Virginia.

Old versus new. That’s not necessarily to say that nuclear is the best option for new plants. Nuclear has hard-to-quantify risks not shared by other power sources. The fact that the North Anna station is built on a fault line does not inspire confidence. Neither does the fact that United States has yet to devise a permanent solution for the disposal of radioactive waste. The engineering and physics of nuclear power are so complex that anyone (from power companies to environmentalists to neighborhood kooks) can make any claim and members of the public have no ability to appraise them. That inherent uncertainty weighs heavily against nukes in the popular mind.

Not long ago, Dominion appeared ready, willing and able to start pushing for a third, 1,453-megawatt nuclear unit at North Anna, a proposal that would be sure to ignite massive controversy. For now, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars in preliminary work, the company is keeping that option alive. But the 2015 IRP seems less settled upon nuclear than before. The company’s own portfolio risk assessment showed that, on a risk-adjusted basis, new nuclear was marginally more expensive than alternatives that rely more upon gas or solar.