Testing the Impact of Solar

Solar panels at Dominion's Philip Morris USA site with warehouses in the background.

Solar panels at Dominion’s Philip Morris USA partnership program site.

Virginia has been slow to embrace small-scale solar energy, but Dominion’s Solar Partnership Program could show how to integrate variable solar generation into local distribution systems.

by James A. Bacon

The biggest solar farm built in Virginia to date isn’t very big by anybody’s standards — only 2.5 megawatts, enough to power about 500 homes. But Dominion Virginia Power, which owns and operates the facility on land leased from Philip Morris USA, says it will apply what it learns from the project to smooth the integration of larger volumes of solar power into Virginia’s electric grid in the future.

Built for $4.9 million, the Philip Morris facility is one of ten projects either completed or underway under Dominion’s “Solar Partnership Program.” The scale is tiny: Projects conducted in cooperation with various Virginia universities and corporations total 6.7 megawatts, about one two-hundredth the capacity of the new gas-fired power station the utility is building in Greensville County.

The purpose of the program is experimental. Dominion’s system, like those of most electric utilities, is dominated by huge power plants that rely upon high-voltage transmission lines to move electric power long distances and lower-voltage lines to complete the connection to local homes and businesses. Anticipating a surge of solar power, much of it small-scale and scattered, Dominion wants to see how solar impacts the reliability of its distribution system.

“What happens when you put a new power source on a lightly loaded circuit?” says Brett Crable, director-new technology and energy conservation: “Do our traditional power grid components handle it well?”

Dominion has come under intense criticism from environmentalists who say the power company is biased toward building massive, gas-fired power stations instead of more distributed, smaller-scale solar power. Dominion has dragged its feet on solar, argues Ivy Main, author of the Sierra Club-Virginia’s Power to the People blog.

The Commonwealth had only about 22 megawatts of solar installed as of the end of 2015, but by the end of this year, we should be comfortably into the triple digits. That’s still trivial compared to neighboring North Carolina, which added over 1,000 megawatts last year alone, but it’s grounds for celebration here in the “dark state.”

Dominion counters that it is moving slowly but deliberately in order to preserve the integrity and the grid and the reliability of service. Solar is an intermittent power source — it generates power only when the sun shines. Its output can fluctuate dramatically over the course of a day as clouds sail by. While the high-capacity transmission grid is robust — PJM Interconnection maintains that its service territory, which includes Virginia, could accommodate up to 30% renewable energy sources — Crable says less is known about the impact of variability on local distribution systems. “We want to do it the most effective way possible by learning on a small scale.”

After a few months of operation at the Philip Morris location, Dominion has already made one finding: Electric power is flowing the opposite direction the circuit is designed for. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Crable, but only time will tell.

The Philip Morris project is one of ten small solar facilities either completed or underway in partnership with Virginia corporations and educational institutions. Participants include Canon Virginia, Old Dominion University, Capital One, Virginia Union University, Prologis, Randolph-Macon College, Western Branch High School, Merck and the University of Virginia.

Dominion approached Philip Morris, which operates a major tobacco de-stemming operation in eastern Chesterfield County. The cigarette manufacturer provided 11 acres of vacant land in a 20-year lease. Aside from wanting to be a good partner with Dominion, which has always been responsive to power outages and other issues, Philip Morris thought the solar farm would complement its reclaimed wetlands and cogeneration facility, says Greg Ray, senior vice president of manufacturing. The company saw “an opportunity to educate people about ways to make manufacturing more sustainable.”

While Dominion leases the land, it owns and operates the solar farm itself. Power from the Philip Morris facility will feed into a “lightly loaded” circuit in a rural corner of Chesterfield County, which has different conductive characteristics than more heavily loaded circuits. Dominion also is interested in how roof-mounted and ground-based solar might have different effects. Continue reading

This Is What a Fiscal Meltdown Looks Like, IV: The State Intercepts Your Aid

Melt down

Melt down

by James A. Bacon

The City of Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown is reaching a new crisis stage as an Oct. 1 deadline nears to make a $1.4 million payment to the Virginia Resources Authority (VRA), a state funding source for local infrastructure financing.

In remarks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch following a House of Delegates Appropriations Committee hearing yesterday, Secretary of Finance Richard D. “Ric” Brown said that the state might have to “intercept” state aid to Petersburg in order to meet principal and interest payments on VRA bonds backed by the moral authority of the state.

The General Assembly had convened the session to discuss how to build a firewall between Petersburg and the rest of the state. The city faces a $12 million budget deficit this year as well as estimated backlog of $19 million in unpaid bills.

“I just hope we are not heading down this road where we are digging the state into a hole,” said Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, chairman of a task force formed to study the impact of fiscally stressed localities on the state.

“We’ve got to figure out what change we need to make from a state’s perspective; we need to protect ourselves,” said Committee Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “VRA debt can be an issue that can affect our bottom line. We cannot allow [a default] to occur. It’s very distressing when you see what has occurred, and hopefully [the city] will continue to try — in a very straightforward way — to deal with the issues.”

So far, Petersburg officials have yet to ask for state bail-outs. Secretary of Finance Richard D. “Ric” Brown and his office have lent considerable “technical assistance” in disentangling the city’s finances. But other than shaking loose some funds to help the city’s school system, the McAuliffe administration has taken no concrete measure to ease the city’s burden — and it likely would meet considerable resistance if it tried to do so.

City Council has been enacting draconian cuts to the budget in a desperate effort to stem the red ink. Whether it can find $1.4 million to pay the VRA is an open question. The state has a lot at stake.

Created by the General Assembly in 1984, the VRA has funded more than $7 billion in investment in 1,000 projects across the Commonwealth. According to the VRA website, this is how the program works:

VRA sells bonds and then loans the proceeds to local governments to finance eligible infrastructure projects. The borrowers’ interest rates are based on the rates that VRA obtains in the public bond market. Based in part on the use of the Commonwealth’s moral obligation, VRA’s high credit ratings typically result in interest rate savings for localities. This translates to reduced rates, taxes and user fees for borrowers’ constituents.

Come Oct. 1, if Petersburg fails to make its $1.4 million payment to VRA, absent state intervention, the authority will be unable to make the interest and principal on the bonds sold to investors on Petersburg’s behalf. Those bonds are backed by the “moral authority” of the state, which does not legally obligate the state to made good, as it would if the bonds were backed by the full faith and credit of the state. But a failure to back Petersburg’s payment would damage the state’s moral authority, thus undermining the entire premise of the VRA, harming other localities who might wish to borrow from it, and perhaps even calling into question the creditworthiness of other categories of bonds backed by the state’s moral authority.

Allowing a default on the VRA bonds is, in a word, unthinkable. But bailing out Petersburg would create a moral hazard. If the state bails out Petersburg once, then why not twice? If the state bails out Petersburg, then why not some other hard-pressed locality? Fiscal discipline could unravel.

Brown clearly understands the state’s quandary. Speaking to reporter Markus Schmidt after the hearing, the finance director said he might have to “take certain steps to intercept aid” from the state to Petersburg to make sure the payments are made. He acknowledged the hardship such an action would create: “In many cases for the city, that would make matters a lot worse for them.”

Don’t Short-Change Our Troopers

state_policeby James A. Bacon

The Virginia State Police face a severe manpower shortage: Veteran police are resigning faster than recruits can be trained. In the first nine months of this year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 103 sworn employees and 76 civilian employees have left the department. Meanwhile, applications to join the state police have fallen 49% since February.

Excluding police in training, the department is 220 troopers short. In the Richmond area, state police have lost 11 troopers from the 40-trooper allotment for Area 8. Staffing frequently dips below the “safe and acceptable minimum” of 18 troopers needed for each 24-hour period, according to a memo written by Col. W. Steven Flaherty, state police superintendent.

Applications for law enforcement are trending downward nationally, said Flaherty, but the problem is accentuated in Virginia by noncompetitive starting salaries.

“Our troopers are taking up collections for other troopers who cannot afford to buy their own lunch,” one commander wrote to another state police official in an email. “They are risking their lives every day and cannot afford to eat. What does that say?”

Since 2006, reports the T-D, the state police have experienced a $94.2 million reduction in General Fund budget resources. Additional cuts under consideration would hack out another $13.1 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: While reading this article this morning, a story appeared on the television news about an inexplicable and horrifying police shooting of an unarmed black man in Oklahoma who appeared not to be threatening or resisting in any way. Now, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to be a police officer never knowing if the subject of a stop will resist violently. Nationally, the number of police shootings is up markedly this year. But the juxtaposition of the two stories tells me that we need more than ever to hire the highest-caliber police officers who can exercise good judgment and maintain their cool in tense, ambiguous situations. And we don’t accomplish that aim by neglecting pay raises and slashing departmental budgets year after year.

Budget makers face hard choices in allocating scarce resources. I do not envy their job. But law enforcement is a core function of government. If the state police budget is to be cut, then the department’s mission must be redefined to align it with the resources available. Stressing troopers by stretching the force too thin cannot possibly end well.

Virginia Welfare Trends

I came across some interesting data on the Virginia Department of Social Services website showing the number of Virginians receiving social welfare benefits. I offer the data without commentary. — JAB

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance PrograM (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.



Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Energy Assistance -- heating and cooling

Energy Assistance — heating and cooling

Energy Assistance -- crisis

Energy Assistance — crisis

Hospitalization claims

Hospitalization claims

General relief

General relief

Make It Easier for Physicians to Donate Medical Care

extremesAugust “Augie” Wallmeyer, a long-time lobbyist and member of Virginia’s political class, decided in his semi-retirement years to tour the state, with special attention to rural regions that are largely unknown to those who dwell in Virginia major metropolitan areas. In compiling material for his soon-to-be-published book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” he says, he’d “met dozens of people, heard their stories, listened to their dreams, their fears, their hopes, their gripes.”

In a four-part series in the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page, Wallmeyer has done a fine job describing the hardships and challenges of Southwest Virginia, Southside and the Eastern Shore. Like a good public policy wonk, he offers a number of suggestions on how the General Assembly can help. For the most part, specific proposals are small-bore, suggesting that he sees no sweeping remedies, no magic bullets.

But one idea struck me as immensely practical: Physicians and lawyers need to figure out how to change the malpractice laws to make it easier for health care professionals to donate their care. Writes Wallmeyer:

Physicians who treat poor and indigent people without charge fear getting sued by their patients, which is one reason very many doctors simply don’t treat the poor. They fear not only lawsuits related to their medical practice, but also being accused of crimes by their patients, some of whom have mental health problems. …

Virginia’s legislature should forcefully insist that the medical and legal communities mutually resolve this problem and then adopt a statute that actually protects doctors from lawsuits when treating poor people, while appropriately preserving the legitimate legal rights of the poor.

Bacon’s bottom line: On this blog, I have highlighted several proposals to improve affordability and access to the health care system for Virginia’s poor that don’t expose taxpayers to the enormous risk of expanding Medicaid. Add Wallmeyer’s idea to the list.


DeSteph’s “Relentless” Search for the Truth at UVa

uva_fog_smallby James A. Bacon

The controversy over the University of Virginia’s $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund may have settled down since a state auditor determined in August that the controversial pot of money was in full compliance with Virginia law. But William R. DeSteph, Jr., R-Virginia Beach, isn’t satisfied. He has released correspondence expressing his ire at university officials for keeping legislators and the public in the dark.

“My confidence in the forthrightness of the University’s leadership has been undermined by its own contradictory statements and numerous private conversations about public matters,” DeSteph wrote in a Sept. 14 letter addressed to UVa President Teresa Sullivan. It was a matter of “grave concern,” he said, that she continued “to refuse to provide the public records requested by my colleagues and me.”

“If you and the University’s leaders persist with obvious disingenuous efforts to keep the doors closed and Virginia in the dark,” he wrote, “you will only reinforce the nation that something’s amiss.”

DeSteph’s sentiments echoed those of a Sept. 8 letter that Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Gate City, had addressed to Sullivan and Rector William H. Goodwin Jr.: “Our concerns have always been that not only did the public not know about [the fund], much less where to look, but also that clearly neither did your Board of Visitors nor we as legislators charged with keeping a tight rein on the public’s purse.”

The existence of the fund was revealed by former Board of Trustees member Helen Dragas in a Washington Post op-ed shortly after she left the board this summer. She charged that board members had been coaxed into raising the tuition for incoming first-year students by 10% without understanding that income from the fund, estimated to be about $100 million per year, could have been used to offset tuition increases. University officials planned to use the money to recruit star faculty, enrich the student experience and provide financial aid for lower-income students as part of a longer-term plan to boost UVa into the ranks of the Top 10 universities nationally.

Critics contend that, while what UVa did was legal in setting up the Strategic Investment Fund, the process was opaque to the public, the legislature and even some members of the Board of Trustees. They also charge that the first full explanation to the board of the purpose to which the fund would be put was held in a closed session in likely violation of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

A joint Senate-House subcommittee of the General Assembly held a hearing last month to look into the matter. A state auditor showed how UVa had consolidated various reserves and other restricted funds and handed them to the University of Virginia Investment Co. (UVIMCO) to invest, which it did successfully. The actions were legal, properly accounted for, and fully disclosed in university documents, the auditor said.

In pursuing their inquiries, DeSteph and his legislative allies have asked for voluminous information from the university. In a Sept. 2 letter to DeSteph, Sullivan referred to “thousands of pages of document that we have already provided in response to your requests.”

According to a Sept. 9 letter to DeSteph, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, had advised Sullivan that “any and all legislative requests for information on this matter would come either through the Joint Subcommittees or the respective Committee Chairs. … It is important that any requests for information be focused and pertinent to the use of the Fund to advanced the University’s mission.”

However, DeSteph, Kilgore and others were not satisfied. As DeSteph wrote to Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City:

The issue has never been the legality of the fund. Instead, the issues have always been the University’s administration disguised the money, had private conversations with just a handful of the Board of Visitors’ leadership about how to spend public money and the investment income off of this public money, and convinced the Board to go along with its plans in an illegal closed session while simultaneously instructing members to keep them a secret from us and the public. …

Rector Bill Goodwin has been far less than candid over the course of numerous conversations, I’ve been given the run-around by President Terry Sullivan, and plainly told by Pat Hogan, the University’s chief operating officer, that what’s gone on is none of my business. Continue reading

Solar Farm 101

Brett Crable, director-new technology and energy conservation for Dominion Virginia Power.

Brett Crable, director-new technology and energy conservation for Dominion Virginia Power.

A book entitled “Solar Farms for Dummies” would never sell. Once constructed, solar farms are so simple to maintain that the biggest job is cutting the grass.

by James A. Bacon

Does anyone wonder how a solar farm works? From an electro-mechanical standpoint, it’s remarkably simple — nothing like a gas-fired power plant with its profusion of ducts, pipes, fans and vents. But there’s more to it than is evident to the casual observer. I got a primer this morning at the unveiling of Dominion Virginia Power’s “Solar Partnership Program” plant outside the Philip Morris USA manufacturing facility in Chesterfield County.

The 11-acre facility produces two megawatts of electricity at peak output, enough to power 500 homes. Though small by utility-scale standards, the solar farm is the biggest producer of solar electricity in Virginia today. That distinction won’t last long, for bigger solar farms are in the project pipeline. Still, it was large enough to give me an education.

That’s Brett Crable, director of the utility’s new technologies program, in the photo above. He took me on a quick tour — it was quick because, frankly, there is not much to see — and instructed me in solar farm basics.

The most complex part of the farm is the solar panel, which converts sunlight to electricity. There are 8,000 panels, each one generating about 36 volts of electricity under prime conditions. The panels are mounted on stationary aluminum frames, tilted at an angle to optimize exposure to the sun. In some solar farms the panels are mounted on mechanisms that rotate to track the movement of the sun even more closely, squeezing out more energy production but incurring more up-front capital expense and maintenance issues. Dominion decided in this project to keep things simple.

wireSo, where does the electricity go after the panels create it? Wires from the panels (seen at left) feed the low-voltage electricity to a collector box underneath the panel array (below). Those boxes consolidate the flow of electricity into a single underground electric line, which feeds the inverter boxes.

Continue reading