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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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.


Another Tool for Grading Colleges


University of Virginia. Source: College ScoreCard

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Department of Education has published a new online College Scoreboard, which provides useful data for anyone thinking about where to attend college — and for anyone such as citizens, alumni and legislators who wish to appraise the quality of education provided by each institution.

The searchable data provides statistical profiles of virtually every higher educational institution in Virginia and the country — from the University of Virginia to the Art Institute of Washington-Dulles. The tool is a wonk’s dream, providing all sorts of ways to slice and dice the data.

To provide an example, I have highlighted above my alma mater, the University of Virginia. The average cost of attendance, at $17,149, is right at the national average. But the graduation rate is far higher, among the very highest in the country, and the average salary of graduates is significantly higher.

The database allows us to drill deeper to find, for example, that 95% of UVa graduates are paying down their debt, compared to 67% nationally, 24% receive federal loans and, of those who do, they average $19,500 indebtedness upon graduation. The profile breaks down the student body by race/ethnicity and provides the range of SAT scores as well.


Virginia State University

At the other end of the scale is Virginia State University, the seeming sad sack of Virginia’s public university system, where the graduation rate is a meager 41%, and the post-graduation salary $24,000 less than at UVa. Eighty-five percent of all VSU students receive federal loans and, despite a lower tuition than UVa, they average $28,451 in total debt. With such a high debt load, no wonder only 47% are paying down their debt.

That’s not necessarily to say that VSU as a institution is doing a bad job. Clearly, VSU is serving a very different demographic than UVa — predominantly African-American with lower SAT and ACT scores in contrast to UVa’s predominantly white/Asian student body with high SAT and ACT scores. UVa looks good by many measures because it selects the academic cream of the crop of all races/ethnicities, while VSU provides a higher ed option to students who might not be able to attend college anywhere else.

I was curious: Does the superior salary performance of UVa students reflect anything more than the selectivity of the student body? All other things being equal, one would expect smarter students to get higher-paying jobs in America’s knowledge economy than less academically proficient students. Is UVa providing real educational value added, or is it just using its prestige to recruit smarter students?

As a first stab at answering that question I ran a scatter chart correlating average SAT scores with average salary for each public institution. (The College Scoreboard database does not provide average SAT scores, but it does provide SAT ranges for reading, math and writing, so I averaged the high and low of the ranges for each.) The result:

Negative outliers (above the line): Green, CNU; Purple, W&M; red, UVa. Positive outliers: yellow, VSU; dark blue, VMI; yellow, GMU.

Negative outliers (above the line): Green, CNU; Purple, W&M; red, UVa. Positive outliers: orange, VSU; dark blue, VMI; yellow, GMU. Click for bigger image.


Click more bigger image.

Here is the raw data that goes into that chart:

The R² for the slope suggests that 75.6% of the variation in salary can be attributed to SAT scores. Clearly, student selectivity is the dominant explanation for the variation in salaries. But it’s not the only explanation. The other 24.4% can be explained by other factors such as the quality of the educational experience, the value of the alumni network or other factors. Institutions below the trend line exhibit a higher pay/SAT ratio, while those above exhibit a lower pay/SAT ratio. Continue reading

Beyond Money and Good Intentions — K-12 Needs Data-Driven Innovation

jlarc_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Two markers yesterday from the never-ending debate over K-12 education:

  1. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report on efficiency and effectiveness of Virginia’s K-12 spending. The main finding: Virginia school divisions spent 7% less per student in FY 2014 than they did in FY 2005. Schools scrimped by employing fewer teachers per student, limiting teacher salary growth and requiring teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs. Cutting spending, the authors implied, was a bad thing. “There is support in the research literature,” they wrote, “that such reductions can negatively impact instructional effectiveness.”
  2. The XQ Institute published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing a contest to award $50 million to five teams willing to re-think and build the high school of the future. “In the last 100 years, our nation has radically transformed. We’ve gone from a Model T to a Tesla, and a switchboard to a smartphone. But our schools have stayed frozen in time. … Let’s create a place that builds brains and stirs hearts and treats our nation’s students like a most valuable national resource. A place that explores a new kind of intelligence, the kind of thinking that’s challenging, creative, and endlessly relevant.” (Read more about the XS Super School project here.)

Virginia schools, like most across the country, remain captive to the idea that the quality of education is commensurate with the level of inputs — teachers, support staff, facilities — into the system. Given the rigid, rules-driven nature of the system we have built in Virginia, there may be some truth to that view, although I cannot help noting that the Department of Education has been crowing recently about how Virginia high school students have been exhibiting gains in SAT and ACT college-preparedness scores over the past five years, so spending cuts need not necessarily lead to deleterious results.

One of the mandates in the JLARC report was to examine Virginia’s experience with online learning. The report’s conclusions were limited: Online learning does cost less than educating a child in a physical school but there is a problem with students not completing their courses. Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion is that it is difficult to evaluate online education because Virginia’s school system captures little relevant data:

There is currently no reliable statewide information comparing the performance of similar students at virtual and physical schools. There is also no accurate statewide method to estimate how much funding the state should provide for virtual learning.

Compare that to the approach advocated by XQ Schools: Super School teams will self-assemble, immerse themselves in the leading thinking and research, investigate how students learn what they need to learn, and build a school from scratch based upon those principles. Technology is part of the equation but only a part. States the website: “Teaching has to be innovative, and this doesn’t just mean bringing new technologies or the hottest theoretical approach into the classroom. … Successful schools build a culture of performance, in which everyone is accountable for student success and use information to assess progress, flag problem areas, and identify opportunities and solutions.”

I would nominate Craig Larson, an associate professor in math at Virginia Commonwealth University, to organize one of those super teams. He penned an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch urging a more data-driven approach to deciding what works and what doesn’t in Virginia schools.

The City of Richmond’s new school superintendent, Larson writes, has introduced an Academic Improvement Plan that did not appear to be based upon any research. “With a $271 million annual budget, RPS should be doing more substantial research. And this research should show up in … reports; it should be discussed by School Board members; and it should make it to the paper and the news, and be discussed by interested citizens.”

It’s not enough to have good intentions, says Larson. Virginians need a cultural change. “We need to expect our school leaders to have this knowledge. We need to ask them for data at every School Board meeting. … We should expect to read about ideas based on data every time we read the paper.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia can follow one of two paths. We can continue teaching the same way we have for decades, only spending more money to do so, or we can encourage innovation, experimentation and data-driven analysis of results to achieve radical gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

Virginia is playing small ball. According to the JLARC report, school efficiency reviews have been conducted for 43 school divisions, yielding 3,300 recommendations and $37.5 million in annual savings. That’s out of $15.7 billion spent, or about two-tenths of one percent. Tweaking maintenance practices for school buses may be laudatory and worthwhile, but it’s not going to change students’ readiness for the world that awaits.

We need to think bigger, think more creatively and be more rigorous in our analysis of what works.

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 best option. Conservationists disagree.

by James A. Bacon

Communities in the historic Virginia Peninsula face a devil’s alternative: Immediately accept a high-voltage transmission line that foes say could mar views of a historic stretch of the James River or face the prospect of rolling blackouts that Dominion Virginia Power says could disrupt the economy for 500,000 people.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) and the PJM Interconnection regional transmission organization have given the go-ahead to build the 500 kV Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line to balance electricity lost when Dominion Virginia Power shuts down two antiquated coal-fired units at the Yorktown Power Station. But many residents in and around the history-rich region are up in arms, and Dominion cannot begin construction on the line until it obtains necessary switching-station zoning approval from James City County and a nod from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If a decision isn’t made immediately, contends Dominion, the power company will be unable to complete construction of the transmission line before it shuts down the Yorktown power plants in April 2017 at the latest.

At that point, reliance upon four existing 230 kV transmission lines will put the electric grid only one or two “contingencies” — unplanned transmission-line outages — away from a meltdown that could send uncontrolled blackouts cascading to the Richmond region and beyond. Rather than risk such a catastrophe, federal regulations would require Dominion to take customers offline on a rotating basis. Depending upon weather conditions and other events, the Virginia Peninsula will be at risk of rolling blackouts 50 to 80 times a year.

“If there’s a one in million chance of a breakdown, PJM tells us to shed load,” says Kevin Curtis, Dominion’s director of transmission planning, referring to the regional transmission organization that would issue the command to pull the trigger. If Dominion failed to follow through, it could face fines of $1 million per day for violating North American Electric Reliability Corporation standards.

But foes of the transmission line are still fighting back. In early August, the James City County Planning Commission recommended denial of a rezoning request that would allow Dominion to construct a sub-station critical to the project. Meanwhile, the USACE says,  “Due to the many variables yet to be addressed, we are unable to provide a discrete timeline” for when it might decide whether or not the project requires a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement, which could delay it yet another year.

Margaret Nelson Fowler, founding member of the Save the James Alliance, isn’t buying Dominion’s warning of rolling blackouts. Dominion is making a business decision to shut down the Yorktown power plant, she says. Dominion can continue operating the coal-fired units in a non-compliant status. It will have to pay fines, but fines are Dominion’s problem, not the community’s, she says. “We’ve been told by people who know that blackouts would never be permitted. … This is all scare tactics.”

Surry-Skiffes Creek is perhaps the most controversial of some three dozen transmission line projects that Virginia’s major power companies are planning or implementing as they undertake a sweeping re-engineering of Virginia’s electric grid. Under heavy regulatory pressure, power companies are shifting from coal-fired generating plants to gas, wind and solar energy sources; transmission lines must be built or upgraded to accommodate the re-routed flow of electricity. Dominion lists 27 Virginia projects at some stage of approval or construction; Appalachian Power lists seven approved and pending projects.

The problem is that no one likes looking at power lines, and proposals often encounter local resistance. The Surry-Skiffes Creek proposal arises from a set of circumstances that is particularly complex and intractable. The engineering logic that dictates building a 500 kV Economic transmission line across the James River is persuasive. But so are objections by conservationists and property owners, who say Dominion’s cost-benefit analysis fails to take important non-monetary values into account. The result is institutional gridlock as the proposal works its way through federal, state and local oversight. In this case, the economic consequences of a failure to reach a timely resolution could be highly debilitating to the Peninsula economy. Continue reading

The Slow, Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit?

WMATA's problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

WMATA’s financial problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

by James A. Bacon

The 2010s were supposed to be the era of mass transit in the Washington metropolitan region. Millenials were jettisoning their automobiles in favor of walking, biking, buses and rail. Localities were zoning for denser development around transit stops and Metro stations. State and federal governments were channeling more money into new rail projects. Real estate developers were plowing billions of dollars into transit-oriented development. But something unexpected happened along the way.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership actually declined by 17 million between fiscal 2013 and 2015, to 362 million trips, despite the Silver Line expansion of Metro rail. Given the deteriorating fiscal condition of the rail and bus network, which has a $3 billion capital and operating budget this year, that number does not seem likely to improve. In a system dogged by safety incidents, poor on-time performance and broken escalators, customer satisfaction is declining. Meanwhile, capital spending can’t keep up with depreciation, suggesting that service is likely to get worse, not better.

WMATA projects 1% revenue growth over the next five years but 6%  growth in expenses, requiring a relentless increase in state and local subsidies. To balance the current budget, eight county and city jurisdictions jacked up subsidies from $780 million to $877 million. Not only does WMATA propose to lock in those higher subsidies, it proposes increasing them at the rate of 3% annually over five years.

In a FY 2017 budget guidance document, WMATA management acknowledges that local governments will be hard pressed to deliver. “Some jurisdictional representatives have made it clear that they cannot sustain such high levels of subsidy growth year over year given their own revenue growth and competing needs for investment in tools, public safety and other priorities.”

So, what can be done? As Martin Di Caro writes for WAMU.org, rising personnel costs account for 70% of the cost growth in the 10-year outlook. The current contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union expires June 30. Given the potential for disruptive strikes, however, it’s not clear that management has the stomach to extract significant concessions from the union, either in reduced compensation or reform of productivity-sapping work rules.

Another option is raising fares — charging riders a higher percentage of what it costs to provide a ride. Di Caro considers a fare increase “likely,” although higher fares are likely to depress ridership, undermining the goal of raising revenue. Yet another alternative is pruning money-losing bus lines, although cutting service would not endear WMATA to the localities it is asking to pay bigger subsidies.

As WMATA rightly observes, a system failure is unthinkable. WMATA provides a critical service; the Washington-area transportation system cannot function without it. But it’s clear the system is in a slow-motion train wreck.

Bacon’s bottom line: WMATA should be a warning to every Virginia jurisdiction about what can go wrong with mass transit. The blue-state mass transit model is broken. By “blue state,” I refer to a set of attitudes that are most prevalent in blue states: a sympathy for transit unions, which means high compensation costs and low productivity; a reluctance to charge riders the full costs of providing their service, which depresses revenues; and a proclivity to seek federal aid, which comes with expensive regulatory strings attached.

The only good news in this picture is that transportation is undergoing a shared-ridership revolution, in which private companies use smart phone apps, savvy algorithms and flexible routes to provide bus and van service at a competitive price. Instead of increasing subsidies for a failing business model, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation and local governments should be asking themselves how they can foster the rise of the new mass transit paradigm.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Building the Ed-Tech Research Network


by James A. Bacon

K-12 schools and higher ed institutions across the United States are expected to spend a combined $11.3 billion on education technology in 2015. So many new products are flooding the educational marketplace that educators are finding it difficult to make informed decisions about which to use. To address this challenge, the Jefferson Education Accelerator (JEA) is partnering with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to expand JEA’s network of experts and researchers.

JEA, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, launched in February as an educational accelerator/incubator. Its big value-add is a nationwide network of K-12 schools and colleges that provide efficacy studies of new products and services. Washington, D.C.-based AIR uses social science research to gain insights into education, health and the workforce. Among the issues it has addressed recently: what and how summer schoolers learn, school discipline reform, and early childhood education quality ratings.

“AIR brings a breadth and depth of experience in research, evaluation, and technical assistance that we believe will complement the Curry School expertise and support the objectives of JEA,” said Bart Epstein, founding CEO of the accelerator.

Last month Reston-based Echo 360, developer of a learning platform, joined as JEA’s first customer. For an undisclosed sum, JEA will help the Steve Case-funded technology company conduct research and scale its operations.  “Our review of its internal data shows strong evidence of significant impact on student engagement and outcomes,” Epstein said in a press release.

“We know that traditional lectures present a significant challenge for institutions grappling with completion rates and student engagement. Echo360 already shows strong evidence of supporting faculty and engaging students,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School. “At UVA, we’re excited to further explore how technology like theirs can help faculty and institutional leaders improve actual student success.”

Bacon’s bottom line: U.S. K-12 education is in a rut. It costs too much and it has failed to move the needle on educational outcomes. Applying technology to revolutionize teaching methods is, in theory, one way to jump-start the industry. But technology is not a magic wand; the effectiveness of the new technology tools is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Implemented carelessly, technology initiatives can squander a lot of money.  Field-testing the tools in real-world conditions and evaluating them with scientifically valid methods should help take the politics and the anecdotal out of decisions on which technologies to deploy.

The SCC’s Last Crack at Dominion before the Rate Freeze

electric_meterby James A. Bacon

The State Corporation Commission is conducting a two-week hearing to determine whether or not Dominion Virginia Power should rebate $66 million in excess profits to ratepayers, as calculated by the SCC staff.

This review of Dominion’s base electric rates (which cover operating costs, not fuel or rate adjustment clauses) will be the last until 2022. Rates will be frozen until that time as part of a legislative deal designed to provide rate stability as Virginia electric utilities implement Clean Power Plan mandates. The Virginian-Pilot explains the issues at stake here.

According to SCC staff calculations, Dominion earned a profit of 11.34% over the two-year period covered, significantly more than the 10% allowed. The SCC maintains that Dominion owes a refund; Dominion contests the SCC’s accounting. A key issue is how to account for the closure of coal ash ponds at three power stations under the threat of litigation from environmental groups.

The SCC also contends that Dominion will generate a return on equity of 12.9% going forward, which could create $300 million in extra profit each year. Thanks to the rate freeze, the SCC cannot adjust Dominion’s base rate or order rebates for six  years. Dominion maintains that the SCC analysis is flawed, assuming no storm or environmental costs going forward.

The accounting issues are all very interesting, but what’s most fascinating to me is the number that’s not discussed — the 10% Return on Equity (ROE). Earning 10% on your money is a pretty good deal if you can get it, especially given the relatively low-risk nature of the business. While Dominion isn’t guaranteed a profit, the rules are structured in such a way as to make it likely that the company will meet the target. No small-time investor can hope for a risk-adjusted return anywhere near that high. And given the prolonged interest rate suppression engineered by the Federal Reserve Bank, even the braniacs administering the nation’s biggest pension funds are adjusting the projected long-term return on their portfolios downward from 8% or thereabouts to 7%.

Dominion’s 10% ROE compares to 9.76% ROE for the electric utility industry as a whole in the 2nd quarter of 2015, according to CSI Market, up from 8.48% the same quarter in 2014. By a different set of metrics published by New York University, the utility industry (electric and gas) was earning 11.0% as of January 2015. That was higher than 32 other industry sectors and lower than 61.

The electric utility business is undergoing massive change. Environmental Protection Agency regulations are pushing the industry into a shift from coal-fired generation to natural gas and renewables, which entails the shuttering of old power plants and rerouting of electricity flows. Meanwhile, renewables and smart grid technologies are challenging the old business model of building large-scale, centralized power plants and giant transmission lines. It is easier than ever for electric customers to generate their own power. Yet everyone needs backup, and someone has to maintain the electric grid.

These are interesting times indeed for the State Corporation Commission: many questions and no easy answers.

Virginia Migration Patterns

Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.

Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Census Bureau has released inter-metropolitan migration data based on its 2009-2013 American Community Survey, and Luke Juday at the Stat Chat blog has created a tool allowing people to visualize the origins and destinations of people coming and leaving each metropolitan area. The results for Virginia’s metros, though hardly surprising, are nonetheless intriguing. Showing the linkages between metros, I would suggest, shows how inter-connected they are by ties of family, friends, education and business.

The Washington metropolitan linkages are, strongest by far with the major cities of the Northeastern megalopolis, particularly Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, but the region does have fairly strong ties to Virginia, including Richmond, Hampton Roads, Blacksburg and Charlottesville as well. Washington’s ties to states south of Virginia are tenuous. Only Atlanta registers as an important node for back and forth movement.

The net immigration, not shown in the maps but displayed in the table below, also is revealing. New York, Boston and Phillie send far more people to Washington than they receive in return. But Washington exports people to Virginia — Richmond at the top of the list, followed by Blacksburg and Charlottesville. One suspects there is a strong university connection with Blacksburg and Charlottesville. The steady leakage of people from Washington to Richmond is an interesting phenomenon worth digging into.


The Richmond story is marked by strong linkages with the other metros in Virginia. While its total migration numbers are smaller than those of Washington, a metropolitan region five times its size, they are larger as a percentage of the population. The situation is reversed for movement between Richmond and New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia; there is less movement than between Washington and those metros, even on a population-adjusted basis.

Sources of immigration to Richmond

Sources of immigration to Richmond

Richmond is a net exporter of population to Blacksburg and Harrisonburg, college towns, and a large importer from Washington, Norfolk and New York.

The one big surprise in this data: There was far less movement between Richmond and North Carolina metros than I expected. In my personal experience, Richmond is full of Tarheels (including my wife). I guess that anecdotal information doesn’t count for much.


I did not have time to develop comparable profiles for other Virginia metros, but if readers are inclined to do so, I would be happy to publish their analysis.