Chesterfield Confronts Cost of Addressing Storm Water Runoff

Virginia Tech bioretention project

Virginia Tech bioretention project

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County businesses could wind up paying $308 per year on average to fund the county’s $35 million stormwater utility program, while single-family households could be tagged with $24 per year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Needless to say, a lot of people are unhappy with the prospect of a new fee. “It is very unfair that we have to deal with it,” said Steve A. Elswick, board chairman. But noncompliance is not an option. “There have been questions about what if we just don’t do it. Unfortunately we’ll be faced with civil liabilities and criminal charges against the county administrator.” Public hearings on the plan are scheduled in March.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I’m not a fan of new taxes and government-mandated fees that look and feel like taxes. I believe in smaller, less intrusive government. But if a new tax or fee is justified, the stormwater utility program probably is it.

First off, the burden of establishing a serious stormwater management plan has been working its way through the legislative and regulatory system for a decade or longer. Every local government has known it was coming and has had years to prepare. The fact is, stormwater runoff  imposes significant economic costs. It causes erosion and puts sediment into rivers and streams, it picks up nitrogen and phosphates which contribute to destructive algae blooms, and it carries toxic chemicals from roads and parking lots into the watershed. The end result is significant environmental degradation to Virginia’s streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay, which causes economic harm to the recreation and fishing industries (to say nothing of the harm done to the wildlife).

Second, the most appropriate way to pay for mitigating stormwater runoff is with a user fee. People should pay in direct proportion to the harm they cause, as measured by the square footage of impermeable surface on their property such as roof tops, driveways, patios and parking areas. That means large retailers with sprawling parking lots would pay the most, as appears to be the case in the Chesterfield plan. Insofar as county roads contribute to runoff, it may be justifiable for a proportionate share of program costs to come from general county funds.

How much will the program cost businesses? Many will pay less than the $308 average, Scott Smedley, director of Environmental Engineering, told the board of directors. And some will pay a lot more. “There is a small percentage on top, large facilities, that have really high bill, so that kind of skews that average.”

I haven’t seen the Chesterfield plan, so I don’t know the details of how the fees are structured. But in an ideal world (ideal from my perspective, at least), businesses should be rewarded through a reduction in fees if they reduce the square footage of impervious surface. One thing the county could do is to relax minimum parking mandates that compel businesses to maintain more parking spaces than they need or want. Indeed, every jurisdiction in Virginia should repeal their parking minimums.

Meanwhile, in General Assembly action, funding for stormwater runoff has become a budgetary issue. The McAuliffe administration’s proposed budget would cut the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching funds to local stormwater-cleanup initiatives, to zero. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is backing budget amendments that would provide $50 million over each of the next two years. A separate measure would streamline statutory programs to help localities better manage their runoff programs.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is an environmental and economic imperative. While some may be impatient at the slow pace of progress, the Bay ecology is improving. It took decades to ruin the Bay and it will decades to restore its full potential. Virginia is pursuing a reasonable, slow-but-steady approach that is fiscally and politically sustainable.

Sparks Will Fly

gridby James A. Bacon

Step aside Medicaid expansion. The big uproar in the General Assembly this year is over who gets the final say over the shape of Virginia’s Clean Power Plan: General Assembly Republicans or Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.

At stake is the future of Virginia’s electric grid. Democrats and their allies are pushing for 30% renewable energy by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Republicans and their constituencies fear that excessive investment in intermittent energy sources like solar and wind would saddle rate payers with billions of dollars in unnecessary costs.

In a straight party-line vote earlier this week, the House of Delegates passed House Bill 2, which would require both the House and the Senate to approve any plan developed by Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from electric power sources before submitting it to the Environmental Protection Agency.

After the bill’s passage, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said the energy plan will have a “devastating impact” on Virginia’s economy, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It is critical that the people have a say in the energy policy of the commonwealth through their elected representatives, not by unelected bureaucrats in Washington and Richmond.”

The bill likely faces a veto by McAuliffe, who has said that he would combat any effort to limit the state’s ability to respond to climate change and sea level rise.

The state faces two strategic decisions on how to reach Clean Power Plan emission goals.

The first decision is whether to go with an “emission standards” plan or a “state measures” plan. An “emission standards” plan would apply EPA standards to coal- and gas-fired power plants in the state. A “state measures” plan would include a mix of measures, not just focusing on power plant emissions but allowing other elements such as renewable energy standards and residential energy efficiency. A stakeholders group advising the DEQ reached a consensus, according to the meeting minutes, “that the emission standard approach was preferred.”

The second decision is whether to adopt a “mass”-based approach or a “rate”-based approach for reducing CO2 emissions. A mass-based approach sets targets based on the absolute volume of CO2 emissions by electricity producers within a state. A rate-based approach sets targets based on CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity generated. The stakeholders group started tackling this issue in December and will resume the discussion in its February meeting.

Meanwhile, in an open letter to McAuliffe, 50 Virginia environmentalists and progressives pushed for an aggressive implementation of the Clean Power Plan. States the letter: “Virginia can and should reduce its total carbon pollution from power plants at least 30% by the year 2030, by applying the same emissions limit to all plants (existing and new) and increasing our use of energy efficiency and renewable energy. With this strategy, Virginia’s Clean Power Plan will reduce electricity bills and grow our economy, while helping to meet our obligation to future generations.”

Boomergeddon Update: Deficits Rising Again

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Source: Congressional Budget Office

by  James A. Bacon

Blame who you want for this sad state of affairs — it’s always the other guy’s fault, right? — but after six years of shrinking federal government deficits, red ink is on the rise again. And unless Congress enacts significant budget reforms, deficits will get worse every year pretty much forever until the wheels fall off the bus.

The chart above comes from a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which, to my knowledge, is not funded by the Koch Brothers. What should be really scary is that the forecast is based upon the assumption of slow-but-steady economic growth (about 2% annually) over the next 10 years — without a recession, a totally improbable supposition. The current business cycle, though anemic, is seven years old, and the global economic situation is a mess. When a recession does occur, revenues will decline, spending will climb and deficits will shoot higher.

Some will comfort themselves from the chart above by observing that CBO’s projected deficits for the next 10 years are no worse than the deficits of the Reagan/Bush I era. That’s true, assuming we don’t have a recession, in which case it won’t be true. But such thumb-sucking ignores the fact that we have a $19 trillion national debt, which, as a percentage of the economy, is higher than at any time since the Korean War. It ignores the fact that the percentage of the budget on auto-pilot (entitlements and interest) will be far higher, which will give Congress far less latitude to cut spending should it need to. It ignores the fact that the Federal Reserve Board today is pursuing a highly stimulative, near-zero interest policy today, in contrast to the slam-on-the-brakes interest policy of the early 1980s. And it ignores the fact that the 1980s-era economy had greater growth potential than our economy today with its aging workforce, debilitating tax code, over-regulation and seriously impaired global economy.

What does this imply for us mere mortals residing south of the Potomac? President Obama and Congress made a pact with the devil to jack up discretionary spending in the latest budget, thus easing the pain of sequestration. But long-term, the prognosis for Virginia’s federally dependent economy is grim.


Expressed as a percentage of the economy, federal discretionary spending (which includes defense spending) will continue to shrink as mandated spending and interest payments hog new revenue dollars. That bodes ill for the military-intelligence-homeland security complex in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Bacon’s bottom line. First the uncontroversial: Virginia needs to ramp up its efforts to diversify its economy away from federal spending. Next, the controversial: Put state and local finances (including pension obligations) on a tighter leash. And then, the super-controversial: Don’t trust federal funding promises for anything. What Uncle Sam giveth, Uncle Sam can taketh away. And that includes federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.

Map of the Day: Three Virginias

Source: StatChat blog

Source: StatChat blog

The statistical wonks with the StatChat blog love to depict data in interesting ways. Recently, Luke Juday divvied the Commonwealth into thirds divided by density. In the map above, the yellow mass shows the least densely populated census tracts (fewer than 736 people per square mile), accounting for 94.8% of the state’s land mass. The light green census tracts show the middle third (between 736 and 3,562 per square mile), accounting for 4% of the land mass. Dark green (more than 3,562 per square mile) accounts for 1.2% of the state’s land area. Another way of looking at it: 2/3 of the population lives in 5% of the state’s land mass.


The Belmont neighborhood of Charlottesville

“High density” by Virginia standards doesn’t look like Manhattan. Take the Belmont area in Charlottesville. As Juday observes, it’s a neighborhood of mainly single-family houses with a few apartment buildings and stores thrown in. Average density: 5,700 people per square mile.

Writes Juday: “The homes occupy smaller lots and are arranged efficiently via a street grid. The grid makes the area convenient for walking by minimizing travel distance rather than driving time. While most trips in a neighborhood like this will still involve a car, the distances traveled by the cars are shorter. Parking is shared and more dispersed, further conserving space.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Higher density in Virginia doesn’t require packing people into apartment complexes and forcing them onto mass transit. What it takes is building more walkable neighborhoods like Belmont. We could save a lot more farmland, woodland and wildlife habitat. We could reduce expenditure on infrastructure dollars (or, conversely, provide better infrastructure for the dollars we spend). We could reduce driving, energy consumption and CO2 emissions. And we don’t have to enact a slew of new laws and regulations that add more bureaucracy and constrict economic liberty. We just need to remember revive an arcane knowledge — how to build neighborhoods like Belmont — that we once knew.


The EVs Are Coming. Let’s Get Ready!

Image credit: Evatran

Image credit: Evatran

by James A. Bacon

The market for electric vehicles has not matured as rapidly as many proponents hoped, and the low price of gasoline in the past year hasn’t helped. But when EVs do attain mass-market status, as eventually they will, there is a good chance that a crucial innovation helping them get there will have come out of Virginia. Evatran Group, a six-year-old, Richmond-based startup, has emerged as the country’s leading maker of wireless recharging technology, addressing a big drawback to electric vehicles: the hassle of recharging.

The company’s website describes the value proposition this way: “Hands-Free, Hassle-Free.”

With the Plugless L2 System, you simply pull into your parking space and your EV starts charging automatically. No dirty cords to untangle and no chance of forgetting to charge. The wall-mounted Control Panel guides you as you approach the Parking Pad to ensure correct alignment. Most people get it on their first try!

Writing in Style Weekly, Peter Galuszka describes how 29-year-old Rebecca Hough co-founded Evatran with her father shortly after graduating from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2008. With early-stage financing from New Richmond Ventures, the company has grown to the point where its wireless charger can be installed in the automotive after-market for 60% of the EVs sold in the United States. Additionally, Evatran is raising $10 million in Series B financing to sell plugless units in China.

EV-forecastBacon’s bottom line: Like the quip about Brazil — it’s the country of the future, and always will be — electric vehicles have been touted as the cars of the future for 15 or 20 years now. But venture capitalists and automobile companies are committing serious money to EVs, the rate of technological innovation seems to be accelerating, and the price of gasoline won’t stay below $2 per gallon forever. Within the foreseeable future, there will be millions of EVs on the road.

While contemplating the inevitable rise of the EV, it’s worth thinking about the implications for the future of the electric grid. It seems prudent to draw at least two conclusions.

First, electric vehicles will boost the demand for electricity. In its 2015 Integrated Resource Plan, Dominion Virginia Power projected that there will be 334,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road in its service territory by 2030, which would translate into 369 megawatts of peak load and an annual energy usage of 1,462 gigawatts from charging.

Second, EVs will drive a shift in the electricity load. Assuming most recharging occurs while cars are parked at home, EVs are expected to boost demand in the evening and night-time hours. That could be either a blessing or a curse. During the summer, peak electricity loads occur in late afternoon when temperatures are still high and people come home from work and turn on appliances. If they plug in their cars at that time, EVs could seriously strain the electric grid. However, if people wait until late in the evening when electricity demand slackens, EVs could reduce the gap between peak and non-peak loads, making it easier for utilities to balance the load. Better yet, Night-time recharging of EVs would boost the market for clean wind power, which blows most reliably at night.

Virginia policy makers need to ensure that the load shift to later, off-peak hours takes place.

Dominion is more than four years into a pilot program to shave peak power load by offering EV users voluntary, experimental rates to charge their cars during off-peak hours. The program provides two options. A “whole house” rate provides a preferential off-peak rate for both premises and vehicle. An “EV only” rate provides the off-peak rate for just the vehicle. As of April 2015, 377 customers were enrolled in the whole-house program, and 119 in the EV-only rate. The pilot program extends to November 2018.

The number of participants falls far short of the 1,500 total allowed under the State Corporation Commission (SCC) order. Hopefully, Dominion will have learned enough from the trial that the SCC can seriously consider enacting a long-term, demand-shaving tariff. If not, the commission needs to identify ways to boost participation to the point where valid conclusions can be drawn.

As a bonus, EvaTran could be well positioned to benefit. If Evatrans’ automatic-recharging system can be programmed to recharge during certain hours and not during others, the product will eliminate another hassle factor: remembering when the lower tariff goes into effect and going to the garage late in the evening to manually insert the charger into the car. Such a synergy would be a boon both to consumers and to one of Richmond’s rising entrepreneurial stars.

Editor’s note: I have updated the article to incorporate more up-to-date data on the pilot program from Dominion. — JAB

Marc Edwards, Virginia Hero

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Just when you begin to lose faith in the system, when you think that spendthrift politicians, corporate cronyism and bureaucratic inertia can never be defeated, along comes someone like Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who exposed the lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Mich. Today’s Washington Post describes how he brought the story to light, collecting and testing water samples, assembling a team, battering public officials with Freedom of Information Act requests, and holding government accountable. He spent thousands of dollars of his own money in the process.

A decade previously, Edwards had worked with the Washington Post to demonstrate that corrosion in Washington, D.C.’s pipes had allowed lead to seep into the water supply. He then spent years dogging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until the federal agency conceded the flaws in a 2004 report in which it had concluded that no children had been harmed. “There’s a lot of lessons here for how science can go awry, how bureaucracies can use science to hide the truth,” Edwards told the Post at the time.

Edwards is a hero in Flint. He should be a hero here in Virginia, too, and a model of how citizens can make a difference.


Wind Power Breakthrough

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Virginia could finally get a wind farm.

In a unanimous vote, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to grant a permit to build 25 wind turbines on the ridge of North Mountain, clearing the way for construction of the first wind farm in Virginia. The 550-foot-tall turbines had sparked objections that they would be a noisy eyesore and harm wildlife. As a condition of receiving the permit, project owner Apex Clean Energy must abide by 17 conditions that limit the height of the turbines and how much noise they can make, reports the Roanoke Times.

Botetourt County arguably was the biggest obstacle but the Rocky Forge Wind project still needs to obtain state and federal regulatory approval. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that the turbines could pose an aviation hazard.

Rocky Forge is expected to generate 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes.