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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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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Gender “Justice” at Washington & Lee


W&L’s Lauren Kozak: “Is it possible that there is something In between consensual sex and rape … and that it happens to almost every girl out there?”

Can this column in PJMedia possibly be a fairly rendered reporting of a “sexual assault” hearing at Washington & Lee University? If the story is accurate, it is scary on at least two grounds: (1) the novel theory of “gray” rape, a consensual sexual act later viewed with regret by the woman, is grounds for dismissing a male student from a prestigious Virginia university; and (2) a student can be evicted in a hearing without any pretense of what most Americans would consider a fair trial. Indeed, the W&L hearing resembled nothing so much as an administration-sanctioned kangaroo court.

I hesitate to draw sweeping conclusions from an opinion column until I have seen all sides of the story, although the author, Hans Spakovsky, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, is a serious commentator, not some no-name blogger, and his account is largely consistent with that of a subsequent lawsuit reported by the Roanoke Times. These allegations are far more momentous than the fabulist Rolling Stone UVa fraternity-rape story because they suggest that the administration of a prestigious university has abandoned core principles of American jurisprudence — punishment of a novel, never-bef0re-articulated offense, the right to a fair and open trial, the right to a lawyer, the presumption of innocence, adherence to basic standards of evidence — in its internal proceedings.

The Rolling Stone article inspired an outpouring of investigative journalism by mainstream media publications, most notably the Washington Post. That’s understandable, given the horrifying nature of the putative crime, which confirmed the narrative of a lot of correct-thinking people. The W&L incident, it seems to me, justifies just as much attention. When political correctness hijacks the administrative machinery of a respected university, that’s just as big a story as frat boys run amuck. Let’s hope the Roanoke Times gives this story the full attention it deserves.

Update: Meanwhile, there’s another date rape controversy brewing at Virginia Wesleyan College.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)


Almost Heaven, Pets Virginia

Source: WalletHub

Some WalletHub brain candy for readers while I’m on vacation and the excessive consumption of Margaritas inhibits serious blogging…

The city of Richmond ranks 5th best city in the country for pet lovers based on metrics pertaining to the cost and availability of veterinary care, the percentage of pet-friendly hotels, the number of pet meetup groups, the number of dog parks and the number of animal shelters, among other criteria.

The Bacon family’s two cats could vouch for the findings. They live the life of Riley…. although, I do confess, we left the little loafers behind when we came to the beach.

Norfolk (53rd) garners a middling score for pets, while Washington (62nd), Chesapeake (70th) and Virginia Beach (71st) are less hospital to our furry friends. In case you’re curious, Cincinatti is kitty and doggy heaven at No. 1, and Newark is kitty and doggy hell at No. 100.


Higher SOL Scores: Improved Student Achievement… or Bureaucratic Blarney?

Source: Virginia Department of Education

Source: Virginia Department of Education

by James A. Bacon

Seeming good news from the Virginia Department of Education: Virginia students showed significant improvement in their SOL scores in the 2014-2015 school year. Pass rates increased five percentage points for mathematics (from 74% to 79%) and reading (also 74% to 79%) from the previous year. Pass rates for writing increased two percentage points (from 75% to 77%).

Also encouraging: Hispanic and African-American students closed some of the achievement gap with white and Asian students. “The gap in reading between black and white students has narrowed by two points since more challenging reading tests were introduced,” states the VDOE press release released this morning

“Virginia teachers and students are adapting to the more rigorous standards implemented by the state Board of Education several years ago,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples. “The positive trend lines confirm that meeting these new standards is possible, although it will take time for schools to complete the adjustment.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The question is, how real are these gains? The 2014-2015 school  year was the first in which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test. In other words, most of the improved performance reflects a change in administering the tests — a change designed to improve results — not a change in underlying achievement!

Staples defended the change:

By providing a second chance, we get a more complete picture of the performance of schools in preparing students to meet the commonwealth’s high expectations for learning and achievement,” Staples said. “We all understand the limitations of a single, point-in-time test. Some students who initially do not pass may have just had a bad day. And there are students who barely miss the benchmark and just need a little extra instruction in a particular area to achieve proficiency. For these students, an expedited retake offers another opportunity to demonstrate success before the end of the year.

That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But let’s be clear that we’re comparing apples with oranges when comparing 2013-2014 tests with 2014-2015 tests. It’s impossible to say, as VDOE does in its press release, that the results “represent significant progress in the commonwealth’s effort to better prepare students for success in college and careers.” No, it represents the effects of letting failing students re-take the test, which they could not do last year. It is impossible to conclude from this data that performance is actually improving, and to insinuate otherwise is pure political spin.

Economics Works

Now that Jim and his great family are enjoying a break on the OBX, I thought some far Left stories from the New York Times might brighten his day.

I retired from teaching at the end of the 2008-09 school year. That was right in the middle of the financial crisis. Unlike Goldman Sachs, which was paid 100 cents on the dollar for credit default swaps, teachers didn’t get bailed out. In some states many were fired. At my former employer, Richmond’s Governor’s School, I believe they have had one two percent raise since I left. Even in these low inflationary times, teaching school has meant a decline in real income.

As a former teacher of economics, I often wondered how long teaching could remain a viable career for a recent college graduate. Today’s NYT answers this question.

Teacher shortages are showing up all over the country, from California to North Carolina. More interestingly, teacher prep programs at the university level dropped 30% from 2010 to 2014. According to this article, some districts are putting students in the class room before they finish their programs. I’m not sure how reflective the article is of the situation in this area, but the trend of a developing shortage does appear to be national.

— Les Schreiber

More Questions about Virginia’s Solar Energy Policy

Solar panel harness energy of the sun

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been covering business in Virginia four nearly four decades now, and I have to say, the electric power industry may be the most complex and difficult to understand. I freely admit that I have a steep learning curve ahead of me, and it’s pretty clear that other Virginia journalists do, too. But at least the Richmond Times-Dispatch appears to be trying. The latest case in point is a front-page feature story about solar energy published Sunday.  The article by John Ramsey omitted some critical pieces of the debate but he did surface some valuable perspectives. In itself, the story was incomplete. (The same can be said of my coverage.) But if seen as part of an ongoing dialogue in which the Virginia public builds a workable knowledge of the issues, it makes a worthwhile contribution.

The thesis of Ramsey’s story is that Virginia lags neighboring Maryland and North Carolina in the installation of solar energy and is missing a major economic opportunity as a result. The Old Dominion ranks 30th nationally in installed solar capacity, with only 14 megawatts installed, compared to 242 megawatts in Maryland and 1,011 megawatts in North Carolina. Admittedly, that gap will diminish if Dominion Virginia Power makes good on plans to install 400 megawatts by 2020, and as merchant providers such as Amazon Web Services, which has announced plans to build an 80-megawatt facility on the Eastern Shore, start coming on line.

The unstated assumption of the article is that large-scale installation of solar power is a desirable thing, that it would create thousands of construction jobs, and that it should be expedited by state policy. Nowhere in the article, however, does Ramsey acknowledge the  inherent variability of solar: Panels don’t generate electricity at night and output plummets when it’s cloudy. Intermittent production creates huge challenges for the reliability and stability of the electric grid, and companies must maintain expensive backup capacity to fill in when solar output is deficient. To my mind, it is impossible to discuss intelligently the benefits of solar without acknowledging these challenges.

Ramsey does raise one interesting issue, however. “Dominion’s incentive to build and own its solar farms at the expense of private developers,” he writes, “could continue to stifle the market in Virginia, even in the face of the new federal law requiring power companies to reduce carbon emissions with clean energy.” He quotes Francis Hodsoll, president of the Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Association (VAEIA), as saying, “Here in Virginia, [solar] hasn’t really been allowed to grow. Our policies don’t support it. Now we have a situation where Virginia wants to see solar being built and our utility wants to build it themselves.” Building its own solar plants, Hodnoll contends, is more lucrative than buying production from independent power producers because Dominion can generate a 10% return on equity on its own facilities, which it can’t do when it buys power from someone else.

Does Dominion suppress independent solar power production in order to maximize its own profit? Dominion is a profit-making institution, so it would surprise no one if it pursues policies designed to maximize its profitability. But is that, in fact, what it is doing? Could Dominion be shaping its actions to obtain regulatory approval from the State Corporation Commission, whose job it is to juggle the priorities of electric rates, grid reliability and green energy?

Another factor to consider: Independent producers do not require SCC or Dominion approval to build solar plants in Virginia. They can, as Amazon Web Services proposes to do, sell into the PJM wholesale energy market, of which Dominion is a part. PJM maintains a separate market for green energy, which sells for a price premium over non-green energy. If an independent power company wants to sell green kilowatts into the wholesale market, there is nothing to stop it. I confess, I do not fully understand how the wholesale markets function. But any discussion of solar policy in Virginia is incomplete without such knowledge.

More questions that need asking… During a July General Assembly hearing, Dominion announced that it was issuing a Request for Proposal for third parties to generate up to 20 megawatts of solar power to come online by 2016 or 2017. Hodsoll’s response on the VAEIA blog:

While Dominion’s announcement appears to provide the remedy sought by the industry, Dominion’s description of the process raised concerns about unreasonable deadlines and the complete lack of transparency.

Is Dominion stacking the deck in its own favor? Is this RFP a token gesture to appease greenies and other critics? Or is Dominion genuinely seeking to diversify its solar sourcing? Fair-minded journalists cannot presuppose answers either way. I would dig into this issue if I wasn’t already up to my neck in other unanswered questions. Perhaps the Times-Dispatch will go the extra mile and follow up on the questions arising from its article.

Swimming with the Sharks


I’ll be blogging sporadically this week, as I am vacationing with the in-laws at Emerald Isle, N.C.


Next Step for Offshore Wind

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Earlier this year Dominion Virginia Power received a bid for building two experimental offshore wind turbines that exceeded internal cost projections by more than half, making the proposed project unlikely to win State Corporation Commission approval. In a July stakeholder meeting, DVP executives laid out their analysis of what went wrong. Now stakeholders will convene in three “problem solving cohorts” to determine how to bring down the cost of the project.

According to Nancy Lowe, with the Virginia Center for Consensus Building, which Dominion has engaged to lead the process, the groups will be broken down as follows:

  1. “Contract process and logistics – horizontal vs. vertical contracting, how to cut costs and balance risk through implementation and execution strategies, including multiple contracts versus a single contract, etc.
  2. Technology – focus on  balancing the cost issue with the amount of innovative technology to be developed and explore other technology issues.
  3. Policy Issues – determine the laws or regulations that could be changed to improve the chances of success. Determine the likelihood of being successful in achieving the modification noted, identify and quantify benefits to Virginia ratepayers.”

The stakeholders will not address the issue of cost sharing. Finding other groups to help shoulder the cost of funding the project, which would demonstrate the efficacy of new technologies benefiting the wind power industry broadly, would best be pursued by “the facilitator,” i.e. DVP, wrote Lowe in a communication to stakeholders.

Among the critical technologies to be demonstrated in this proposed pilot test are adaptations to the kind of hurricane-force winds that turbines are likely to encounter in the Atlantic Ocean. Without that technology, investing billions of dollars in an offshore wind farm might be too risky to win regulatory approval.


Why Must Hundreds of Richmond Children Seek Medical Care Outside Richmond?

VCU Children's Pavilion -- no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children's hospital.

VCU Children’s Pavilion — no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children’s hospital.

by James A. Bacon

An excellent article in Style Weekly asks an important question: “Hundreds of local children have illnesses that send them beyond Richmond to seek pediatric care. Why can’t we treat them here?”

The answer: Because the Richmond region is one of the few in the country not to have a dedicated, free-standing children’s hospital. And why doesn’t Richmond have a children’s hospital? Well, you’ll have to read the article, written by former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Peter Galuszka, to find out. While Peter refrains from tarring and feathering the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, evidence in his article points to VCU’s desire to hang on to its own pediatric business as a major obstacle.

As it happens, I’ve been poking around the edges of this story, which I may or may not have time to pursue. One angle among many that are worth investigating would be to document just how many families must seek medical treatment outside Richmond because specialized pediatric services are not available locally.

I recently chatted with two prominent pediatricians. They cited a report that said about 750 children each year seek medical attention outside the Richmond area, in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. That doesn’t include many hundreds of others who seek care, say, at Duke University in North Carolina, or any number of other hospitals around the country.

The problem is that Richmond divides the pediatric practice between three hospital systems: VCU, Bon Secours and HCA. A children’s hospital, advocates say, would create a volume and scale of operation that none of those institutions can achieve on their own. A higher volume would enable a children’s hospital to recruit more pediatric specialists to Richmond. Instead of seeking care outside the region, with all the added costs of travel, overnight stays and time off from work that entails, many families could find that treatment available here in town. There will always be some rarefied specialties that the local medical marketplace can’t support, but a children’s hospital would alleviate the problem to a significant degree.

VCU President countered that logic with vague statements regarding the continued instability and uncertainty in the health care industry and the argument that “collaborative care” was a better approach than a stand-alone hospital. What do they mean by collaborative care? Who knows? Writes Galuszka: “Rao and [Bon Secours CEO Toni] Ardabell declined interviews to elaborate on their positions.”

Virginia’s Spaceport: a Century-Long Commitment

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has settled a dispute with Orbital Science Corp. over insurance of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island. Orbital, which is in the business of launching payload into orbit, will reimburse the state for one-third of the $15 million in damages incurred by the spaceport when Orbital’s rocket exploded during lift-off in October, and it will cover the cost of insuring future launches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Reaching a settlement is critical to the future of the spaceport, to Orbital and to Virginia’s long-term economic future. The Fairfax County-based company is Virginia’s local space champion in a business where high-flying entrepreneurs from California, Texas and Florida predominate. In 2012, when the commonwealth published a strategic plan for the spaceport, Orbital was one of the top ten  largest U.S. space system and launch vehicle manufacturers, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

This may sound excessively Buck Rogers, but I regard the spaceport as critical infrastructure for Virginia’s long-term future. One day, the launch facility could well be the nucleus of a massive space-based industrial complex and seen as vital to the state economy as Virginia’s rail or highway system. At least it will if we can nurture it through the embryonic phase of the space industry in the face of stiff competition — MARS was only one of eight FAA-licensed commercial space launch facilities in the country in 2012.

Building a world-class space industry in Virginia will take patience.  The forecast for commercial space launches, though steady, is not exactly booming in the near term:


2012 FAA forecast for all global commercial space transportation launches, 2012 to 2021.

Right now the market is dominated by NASA and the mission of providing logistical support to the International Space Station. But space-based activity is growing. The strategic report notes the need for:

  • Fixed satellite services: high definition television, Internet connectivity and very small aperture terminal satellites (which serve homes and businesses).
  • Direct broadcasting services
  • Broadband services
  • Hosted payloads: experimental payloads, technology demonstrations, scientific missions, remote sensing, weather and climate monitoring and national security.

An important emerging market is space tourism. Longer run, we can expect to see more defense-related applications, not just satellites but weapons systems. Futurist George Friedman envisions “battle stars” in geosynchronous orbit armed with hyper-missiles to rain down  upon our enemies. The potential exists for specialized manufacturing processes using the unique properties of space such as microgravity and perfect vacuum, as well as vast solar arrays that microbeam energy to earth. A step beyond would involve mining the Moon for He-3 isotope in the lunar regolith, a likely fuel for fusion power. All of these activities will require a supporting space-based (or Moon-based) infrastructure for support. Looking even further out, it is not far-fetched to imagine commercial and religious colonies establishing themselves on the Moon to emancipate themselves from oppressive earth-bound political systems, much as 17th-century colonists sought refuge in the New World.

Earth-based spaceports will emerge as critical entrepots for all of this activity. Those that establish themselves early will enjoy a major competitive advantage by attracting corporate investment, evolving business ecosystems and building economies of scale for supporting infrastructure.

It may take another century for the full potential to emerge. But our children’s children will thank us for staying the course.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the End of the Carnage

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan

Seventy years ago, American aircraft dropped an atom bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, adding another horror to the train of horrors that was World War II. The hand-wringing over the decision to deploy the atom bomb, which resulted in roughly 250,000 deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, continues to this day.

I’m not one of the hand-wringers.

Seventy years ago, my father was inducted into the U.S. Army immediately after graduating from high school. His likely destination: Japan. Americans had just suffered 50,000 casualties in the Battle of Okinawa, and there was every reason to believe the toll would be far worse in the struggle for the Japanese homeland. The Japanese had stripped China and Manchuria of soldiers in preparation for the final battle. They were fortifying the coastline and organizing squadrons of kamikaze-like, human-guided torpedoes (kaiten). Americans would have suffered hundred of thousands of casualties — the Japanese millions. The detonation of the two atomic bombs ended the carnage. My father never had to fight the Battle of Japan. He went on to raise a family and is living to this day.

Hiroshima was a tragedy and should never be forgotten. It serves as a reminder of how horrifying nuclear war can be. But do I regret the decision to drop the bomb? Never.