Tag Archives: Climate change

Renewables, Extreme Weather and System Reliability

Snow-covered solar panels in Michigan.

Snow-covered solar panels in Michigan.

by James A. Bacon

At 8 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2015, Dominion Virginia Power (DPV) supplied a record 19,870 megawatts of electric power to its 2.5 million customers — beating the previous record, set the year before, by 85 megawatts. That news bit comes from a DPV e-newsletter with no particular ax to grind. Temperatures in Richmond, you may recall, fell to 12° F that day.

Now, let’s perform a thought experiment similar to the one that Investors Business Daily did for Boston.

What if environmentalists had convinced Boston city officials that fossil fuels were destroying the planet and that renewable energy sources could supply the city’s needs both in electricity generation and for powering city vehicles?

The past several weeks have seen back-to-back winter snowstorms in New England, as well as much of the Midwest, with plunging temperatures and seven feet of snow already in many parts of Massachusetts. So how would the city fare under a green energy-only policy? …

Let’s begin with heating. Bostonians wouldn’t be able to use heating oil or natural gas because those are fossil fuels, so electricity would most likely depend on wind and solar. But when snowstorms keep coming, there’s very little sunshine, and acres of solar panels would likely be covered in snow.

The picture for wind power is different from solar. Cloudy days don’t dim the production of wind power. But major storms do. Wind turbines are shut down when winds hit high speeds, say, 45 miles per hour or more. Check out the video above to see what happens to wind turbines in high winds. Its’ really cool!

Virginia has a voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that sets a goal for Virginia power companies to generate 15% of their electricity from renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass, hydro) by 2025. Environmentalists have supported increasing the goal to 25% and making it mandatory.

Ironically, one of the things that increasingly concern environmentalists is “extreme weather events” precipitated by global warming. Warming, we are told, will lead to more heat waves, more drought, more hurricanes and more disruption of the jet stream with concomitant extreme bouts of polar cold. We need more renewable energy, they say, in order to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that supposedly drive this climate change. Yet renewable energy — particularly solar and wind — are the most likely to fail during extreme weather events.

Right now, with renewables constituting one or two percent of Virginia’s power portfolio, DPV, Appalachian Power and the electric co-ops have an adequate safety margin to accommodate fluctuations in renewable supplies. But extreme weather events like polar-express cold waves are coupled with extreme demands for electricity. If renewables constituted 25% of the energy portfolio, could Virginia electric utilities keep the heat pumps running? And if they couldn’t, how many people would freeze to death?

These are serious questions. If there is to be a serious discussion about mandating a 25% RPS standard, issues of system reliability must be addressed. If environmentalists want to be taken seriously on this issue, they need to propose solutions. Perhaps there are solutions. If so, I haven’t heard them. But they need to be packaged with RPS legislation, or we risk bringing upon ourselves the very calamity we seek to avoid.

The Silent Sun and Climate Change

sunspotsby James A. Bacon

One of the reasons I call myself a climate change agnostic — I’m not yet persuaded that man-made influences on the climate are pushing temperatures calamitously higher — is that there are alternative explanations for what has been driving long-term temperature fluctuations on the planet. One serious body of thought, largely overlooked by the climate establishment, posits that sun spots have a significant influence on the climate. That proposition is due to experience a major test.

As I understand it, sun spots are said to exercise an effect on climate through a complex chain of physical causation. According to this theory, sunspots indicate a heightened level of electro-magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. Electro-magnetic energy ejected from the sun interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field to reduce cosmic radiation penetrating to the atmosphere. Cosmic radiation interacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to seed certain types of cloud formations that reflect sunlight. The prediction arising from this series of conjectured linkages is that a dearth in sunspots will result in weaker electro-magnetic forces radiating from the sun, less blockage of cosmic rays, more cloud cover and lower temperatures.

Sun spots come and go in regular cycles, but the cycles vary in amplitude. As it happens, the sun is experiencing one of its weakest solar cycles in a century. (See this account at Vencore Weather.) Weak solar cycles — the so-called Maunder Minimum of 1645 to 1715 and the Dalton Minimum of 1790 to 1830 — coincided with the Little Ice Age. Some critics of the “consensus” climate-science view — that human-caused increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the critical variable driving climate change — suggest that the paucity of sun spots will induce a cooling of the Earth.

After reaching a new plateau of high temperatures in the 1990, the planet is in the 18th year of no meaningful temperature increases. That pause was not predicted by anyone hewing to the Global Warming “consensus,” and scientists are busily working to explain it within their own paradigm. But it’s also put-up or shut-up time for advocates of the sunspot hypothesis. If sunspots play a significant role in Earth’s climate, the weak solar cycle soon should be reflected soon in lower temperatures.

If global temperatures actually decline in the next few years, we could reasonably conclude that predictions of the Warmist camp to be refuted and the conjectures of the sunspot camp to be confirmed. On the other hand, if temperatures don’t decline, the sunspot people will have to go back to the drawing board and scribble some new equations. The one thing neither group is predicting is another two decades like the past two. It is entirely possible that both camps will be confounded. Wouldn’t that be something?

Silting, Resilience and Climate Change

by James A. Bacon

Atchafala delta, 1984

Atchafalaya delta, 1984

Louisiana’s coastline is shrinking. Humanity’s impact on the state’s massive but fragile wetlands — levees accelerating Mississippi River water flows, the criss-crossing of marshes with canals — has aggravated the natural phenomena of subsidence and sea-level rise to inundate some 1,900 square miles of coast land over eight decades. It’s an object lesson for Virginia, much of whose low-lying Tidewater region also could end up waterlogged as sea levels rise. We’ve seen the maps — I’ve published some on this blog. A hundred years from now, there could be little left of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in a storm surge but a bunch of islands.

Atchafalaya delta, 2014

Atchafalaya delta, 2014

But, wait, the process of shrinking land mass is not inevitable. Portions of the Louisiana coast are expanding. That’s exactly what you’d expect to find in the Mississippi River delta as the nation’s mightiest river deposits massive volumes of silt and sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. An article in Atlantic CityLab shows satellite photos of the Atchafalaya River, which empties west of the Mississippi, in 1984 and 2014. This delta complex is growing at the rate of one square mile per year.

Writes John Metcalfe: “Scientists are quite interested in studying these processes, as they believe they might help counter today’s leading cause of coastal deterioration: rising sea levels.”

There is a widely held assumption that Virginia could lose hundreds of square miles of wetlands as local subsidence and rising global sea levels conspire to flood the Tidewater marshlands. But is inundation inevitable? The James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna  and other tributaries dump large volumes of sediment into the Chesapeake Bay — so much so that the silt clouds the waters, blocks sunlight and disrupts the bay ecology. But eventually the sediment settles to the bottom, contributing to the build-up of mud and muck.

It would be interesting to know: Which process is occurring more rapidly in the Chesapeake Bay — sea level rise or sedimentation? A related question: How is the sediment distributed? Accumulation of silt in the middle of the Bay just makes a shallower bay. But accumulation in the marshlands might support the creation of new land mass that we see in the Atchafalaya delta.

craney_islandDredging the sediment build-up in Virginia’s shipping channels costs tens of millions of dollars a  year. Much of the dredge material has been directed to Craney Island, a man-made land mass that has transformed the coastline of Hampton Roads. We have a lot of raw material to work with.

Last summer, Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed a Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission to prepare Virginia’s coastal communities for the impact of climate change. It strikes me that the sedimentation issue is ill understood and little discussed. How likely are Virginia marshlands likely to survive incremental sea-level rise as the deposition of silt raises the bay bed? To what extent can Virginia productively re-route sediment from channel dredging to build up the most vulnerable sections of the coastline?

There is a strong bias among those who fret about Global Warming toward solutions that entail re-engineering the nation’s energy economy in order to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions implicated in rising temperatures. Any changes we make in Virginia will have an infinitesimal impact on global temperatures, even if, as widely asserted, CO2 emissions are driving them higher. To survive global warming and rising sea levels, we must make our communities more resilient. That’s where our actions can make a difference.

The Governor’s commission is scheduled to submit its recommendations by June 30 this year. Let us hope that it incorporates the insights scientists are gleaning from Louisiana’s Atchafalaya delta.

What Climate Change Could Mean to Virginia


As temperatures rise (assuming that they do), will there be coherent paths for species to migrate north? This map shows areas where such migrations might occur, if not disrupted by human activity.

by James A. Bacon

The political debate over catastrophic global warming won’t end until the climate either fulfills the dire forecasts of mainstream climate scientists or refuses to cooperate, thus disproving them. Stephen Paul Nash’s book, “Virginia Climate Fever,” is not likely to change many minds on that score. But if you’re wondering how global warming — if it occurs — might affect Virginia’s climate, Nash presents a sobering picture that should inform the thinking of every Virginian. If he’s right, the commonwealth’s environmental future looks grim indeed.

This may be the most important book written about Virginia’s environment in a generation. Nash, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond, makes the scientific debate over global warming readily accessible to the layman. He writes beautifully, explains the issues clearly, and he anticipates many of the arguments of the Global Warming skeptics. For this book, he traveled the length and breadth of Virginia, from the peak of Mount Rogers, with its threatened oasis of cold-adapted spruce-and-fir forest, to sixty miles off the coast where researchers are studying the marine life of underwater canyons. He synthesizes the work of dozens of scientists working on one part or another of Virginia’s climate change, creating a fuller picture than any of them could on their own. (Full disclosure: Steve is one of my closest friends.)

Broadly speaking, Nash says Global Warming (and the rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that drives it) raises three major concerns:

(1) Temperatures are increasing faster than at any time in millions of years, a trend that threatens to outpace the ability of new species to migrate to hospitable ecosystems. Global warming, he suggests, could create a terrible synergy with acid rain, invasive species and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat leading to the extinction of many plant and animal populations and, indeed, of entire species. If existing species are wiped out and new species are slow to migrate north to replace them, America’s once-magnificent Southeast forests could be replaced with a barren savannah.

(2) Rising concentrations of CO2 will acidify the oceans and stress marine life. This problem, incidentally, occurs independently from temperature change. No one disputes the fact that CO2 levels are rising and that acidification stresses marine life; the only debate (of which I’m familiar) is the extent to which marine species can adapt to acidification. In either case, the impact of acidification in the Cheasapeake Bay is magnified by warming waters, overfishing and excess nutrients dumped into the watershed.

(3) Rising sea levels will subject large swaths of the Tidewater to increasing flooding and, ultimately, permanent inundation. Some of the flooding can be attributed to subsidence of the land in response to the retreat of Ice Age glaciers thousands of years ago and will continue, regardless of what happens to global temperatures. If warming occurs, melting icecaps and heating the water — warm water occupies slightly more space than cold — climate change will accelerate the encroachment of the sea upon the land that’s already taking place.

Nash deals with other issues as well, from the impact of temperatures on rainfall and agricultural productivity to the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

My purpose here is not to re-argue the case for and against catastrophic global warming, a topic upon which most people already have firm views and are not likely to change their minds. (For the record, I’m inclined to believe that the planet will continue to warm at a slow-but-steady pace, as it has since the end of the Little Ice Age, but far less rapidly than the catastrophic scenarios called for in the more apocalyptic literature.)

Nash’s valuable contribution that even skeptics should appreciate is to provide a close-up look at environmental risks that Virginia faces. Based on the 18-year pause in rising temperatures, forecast by none of the warmists’ climate models, I don’t see the worst-case scenario transpiring. But Nash makes an excellent point. Let’s assume temperatures and sea levels won’t reach the predicted horror-scenario levels by 2100. It may take a few decades longer than currently anticipated to get there. (Maybe a century longer, in my estimation.) But we’ll get there eventually. We should take advantage of that time to build more resilient communities.

In my view, the tragedy of politics in Virginia is that nearly all public policy is devoted to the proposition that by reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, Virginians can have a meaningful impact on global temperatures. Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.) The point is, the commonwealth and its citizens are investing billions of dollars in LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy, mass transit, electric cars and a host of other saintly endeavors whose collective impact upon global temperatures may be measurable in one-hundredths of a degree over the next century. Continue reading

Diet Denier

Perhaps you could call Nina Teicholz a “diet denier.” The journalist and author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Health Diet,” is part of the growing backlash against a half century-long orthodoxy that aimed to limit fat and cholesterol in the American diet. That orthodoxy, which ruled the medical establishment and the federal health apparatus, unwittingly engineered a society-wide shift to the sugar-heavy diet now deemed responsible for the surge in obesity and heart disease that afflicts the country.

In her book, Teicholz delved into the history of how fats, trans-fats and cholesterol came to be demonized and how public policy strove to drive fats out of the American diet. The movement began in the 1950s with a famous study by Ancel Keys, which postulated a link between cholesterol and heart health. The American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in 1961, the United States Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines in 1978, and momentum built from there. Food companies rolled out low-fat, low-cholesterol food products, typically substituting sugar and salt for fat. Pharmaceutical companies introduced anti-cholesterol drugs. Schools and media brainwashed generations of Americans to change their behavior.

How could things have gone so wrong? As Teicholz explains in her TED talk above:

The same group of people were on all the expert panels. They all reviewed each others’ papers. These groups controlled all of the funding, so if you didn’t get on this cholesterol bandwagon, you couldn’t get funding, you couldn’t do research, you couldn’t be a scientist. Over the course of 25 years, this diet-heart hypothesis became ingrained in the institutions. There became an institutional bias. There was a bias in the media. And everybody lined up behind this hypothesis. You couldn’t be a scientist if you didn’t get on board.

Thankfully, a new generation of scientists questioned the orthodoxy. Now researchers are focusing on the excess consumption of sugar as the main culprit responsible for our dietary woes.

Fortunately, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Our scientific, media and government officials would never enforce another orthodoxy on the grounds that “97 percent of all scientists” in a given field agree that “the science is settled.”  We’d never rig the peer-review process to suppress unpopular scientific viewpoints. We’d never channel billions of dollars of federal funding into supporting one particular point of view of a massively complex phenomenon while de-funding dissenters. We’d never demonize skeptics as “anti-science,” tools of evil, self-interested corporations and moral analogues of holocaust deniers. We’re far too enlightened in the United States to ever let that happen.

Or are we?


A Timely Reminder of the Anti-Agenda 21 Distraction

agenda21by James A. Bacon

Here in Virginia, the anti-Agenda 21 zealots have managed to stay out of the headlines for quite a while. I don’t know if that’s because they are quietly re-energizing themselves or if the movement is falling apart. But it never hurts to be reminded of the bizarre nature of this populist splinter group, which has done so much to obfuscate the issues surrounding growth and development in Virginia and distract from the task of articulating a positive, forward-thinking set of conservative principles to guide governance at the local-government level.

That reminder comes from a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Agenda 21: the U.N. Sustainability and Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory.” The report documents how the anti-Agenda 21 movement, which regards the Agenda 21 project of the United Nations as a radical environmentalist plot to deprive Americans of their property rights and way of life, has thrived on the paranoid fringe of conservative thought.

Lead author Heidi Beirich documents the spread of anti-Agenda thinking from its fountainhead, Tom DeWeese, head of the American Policy Center in Remington, Va., to the Constitution Party, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the John Birch Society, neo-Nazis and all manner of obscure, grass-roots organizations. Many of these are groups that mainstream conservatives do not want to be associated with. Indeed, many are a downright embarrassment to conservatives, for their ideological affinity for small government allows liberals and progressives to paint the broader small-government movement as a collection of cranks and weirdos.

Nowhere is that dynamic more damaging, however, than the debate over Climate Change, the very issue that animates the anti-Agenda 21 populists, because an inordinate fear of global warming underpins many liberal/progressive initiatives in the realm of transportation, zoning and land use.

In truth, there are legitimate questions relating to how global temperatures are measured and calculated. There are issues regarding how much global warming can be attributed to human activity and regarding the efficacy of the climate-model projections that underpin climate alarmism. There is disagreement over the extent to which global warming will harm humanity and the environment. And then there are questions outside the realm of science regarding how best to respond to the challenge of climate change — re-engineering the modern industrial economy to limit CO2 emissions or simply adapting to change if and when it occurs. But of all the issues that serious people raise about climate change orthodoxy, the existence of an international conspiracy to impose the United Nation’s sustainability/social justice agenda upon the American people is not one of them.

I addressed the flaws in the anti-Agenda 21 thinking (it is too incoherent to dignify with the appellation of a “theory”) two months ago in a white paper, “A Distracting Doctrine.” The anti-Agenda 21 literature is replete with cherry-picked data, leaps of logic and an astonishing lack of awareness of conflicting information. This scatter-shot body of thought is so embarrassingly unpersuasive that it actually harms the cause of other skeptics mounting a serious case against climate alarmism.

Worst of all, the anti-Agenda 21 movement is an immense distraction. Focusing on a supposed conspiracy is a losing proposition: first, because there is no conspiracy and it is difficult to persuade people to believe in something that does not exist; second, because global warming orthodoxy has many demonstrable weaknesses that people should be talking about but aren’t, in part because they’re distracted by Agenda 21; and third, because the anti-Agenda 21 movement offers no solutions to the challenges of local government in the 21st century.

The Agenda 21 contras have nothing useful to say about how Virginia regions and local governments should address the challenges of fiscal stress, congested roads and highways, quality of life, local environmental degradation and other issues affected by our built environment. The liberal/progressive answer, driven by a conviction that climate change is a threat demanding the investment of billions of dollars to reduce CO2 emissions, is to strive for environmental sustainability. As I have argued on this blog, conservatives should hammer on the themes of fiscal responsibility, livability, economic development and local environmental issues like air and water pollution. It’s hard to do that when the anti-Agenda 21 crowd is attracting attention by swatting at figments of their imagination.

Smart Growth: A Good Idea even without Climate Change


The percentage of Americans who worry about climate change. Graphic credit: Gallup.

by James A. Bacon

To a large degree, the Smart Growth movement in the United States has hitched its wagon to catastrophic human-caused climate change as the primary justification for building walkable, mixed-use, transit-friendly human settlement patterns. Off and on, I have warned that the emphasis on global warming could be a political mistake. If the American people stop fretting about climate change, the No. 1 justification for Smart Growth goes out the window.

Now comes data from Gallup showing (a) that climate change ranks the second lowest (after race relations) among the 15 major issues that Americans the polling company tracks, and (b) the percentage who worry “a great deal” has dropped to the lowest level since 2001, when Gallup began tracking the issue.

Take a look at the Gallup graph above. Climate change is something Americans worry about more when times are good and concerns about jobs and the economy recede to the background. Interest in the issue took a dive after the 2002 and 2007 recessions, as one would expect. But climate change has been fading to the back of the mind in the past two years as well — even as the economy enters its sixth year of slow-but-steady economic growth.

Gallup doesn’t tell us why this change is happening. My guess it has something to do with the fact that 17 years of stable global temperatures don’t square with the more apocalyptic alarms of the environmental movement. The Global Warming crowd assures us that the pause is only temporary and that temperatures will shoot higher any time now. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I’m not a soothsayer, so I can’t say.

What I can say is that Smart Growth is too important to be held hostage to the fluctuation in global temperatures. Even if the world slipped into another mini-ice age, there still would be very good reasons to support Smart Growth. I urge believers in walkable urbanism to cast their intellectual nets a little wider. One good place to start (aside from Bacon’s Rebellion, of course), is to start checking the Smart Growth for Conservative blog, which aggregates the thinking of contributors from around the country who write from fiscal conservative or free-market perspectives. We’ll be laying out a conservative case, whichever way the wind blows… or the thermometer goes.

Visualizing the Unthinkable

Worst-case "Sandtrina" inundation scenario for south Hampton Roads.

Worst-case “Sandtrina” inundation scenario for south Hampton Roads. Red dots are inundated, green dots above water.

by James A. Bacon

Combine the power of a Katrina-scale hurricane with the geographic proximity of a Hurricane Sandy, aim it at Hampton Roads, and what do you get? Old Dominion University professors Joshua G. Behr and Rafael Diaz cranked up their supercomputer to visualize what might happen.

A “Sandtrina” catastrophe would extend way beyond the loss to houses, buildings, roads and infrastructure to include widespread disruption to the economy and the health care system, they explain in Hurricane Preparedness: Community Vulnerability and Medically Fragile Populations,” published in the latest edition of the Virginia Newsletter.

Do not confuse this issue with Global Warming (GW). Behr and Diaz, who work at ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, were not simulating the impact of hypothesized GW-induced sea level rise, as others have done. The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” never appear in their paper. They were simulating an event that, though statistically unlikely, is within the bounds of experience in the United States and could happen to Hampton Roads.

I have no competence to critique the modeling methodology underlying the Behr-Diaz simulations, but I do believe they deserve credit for broadening their analysis beyond a simple calculation of property damage. They also map financial and medical vulnerability of the Hampton Roads population, recognizing that some households are too poor to effectively prepare for a lengthy hurricane-caused disruption and that some have medical needs that may go unmet after a disaster.

“Resilience,” referring to the ability of communities to recover from disasters, is all the rage among GW believers, but it would be a mistake for conservatives to dismiss the concept out of hand. The Behr-Diaz simulations make it clear that the concept is very relevant right now. Conservatives should take the lead in devising ways to make Virginia communities more resilient to natural disaster. One good place to start: Curtail federal insurance subsidies that encourage people to build in flood-prone coastal areas. Another idea: Encourage development either in higher-elevation areas or in low-elevation areas that can be hardened against a massive storm surge.

Virginia Missing from White House Climate Conversation

Flooded street in Norfolk during Hurricane Sandy.

Flooded street in Norfolk during Hurricane Sandy.

by Rachel Cannon

On November 1st, 2013, President Obama signed an Executive Order “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change” – the newest addition to the Administration’s Climate Action Plan. One part of the Executive Order establishes the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience: a collection of state, local and tribal leaders from across the country who will serve as advisors to the government on building climate preparedness and resilience in their communities.

This is a great idea – so what is the problem? Scanning the list of Task Force members reveals a glaring omission: Among all of these names, there is not a single representative from Virginia. Why not? Other east coast states, including Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, are represented. One state (California) has not one, not two, but three representatives on the Task Force.

Virginia, particularly coastal Virginia, needs to be a part of this.

The Task Force was created to advise, based on first-hand experiences, on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.In part, it will help agencies assist cities and towns to build “smarter and stronger,” identifying and removing barriers to investing in resilience. In other words, the Task Force will tell the government how it can help these communities prepare for and survive climate-change-fueled disasters.

Virginia, especially the Tidewater region, faces tremendous and unique threats from climate change. Moreover, communities such as Norfolk have been battling damaging weather events, not to mention storm surges and relentless flooding, for years. Virginia research institutions, such as the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), have developed superb research on best practices and implementation. Insights from our region’s community leaders are invaluable and irreplaceable to the White House’s efforts. With no Virginians on the Task Force, who can speak on Virginia’s behalf? Maryland? Delaware? How could they? The region faces unique concerns, and must offer its correspondingly unique perspective.

Although storms and sea level rise are only some of many concerns the Administration hopes to address, they are significant, and Virginia can help. First, the predicted effects of climate change on the state are tremendous. Virginia’s Tidewater region has one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country. NOAA predicts there will be almost two feet of local sea level rise over the next 100 years at Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel – the highest increase on the east coast. VIMS estimates that over the next 20-50 years, the Hampton Roads area could experience up to a 1.5-foot increase in sea level rise. Over 80% of the Virginia coastline is considered at “high” or “very high” risk from sea level rise. According to one estimate, 19,000 people in Norfolk and 40,000 people in Virginia Beach live below the 100-year flood level, ranking Norfolk among the five most vulnerable U.S. cities to harm from hurricanes.

Recent weather events like hurricanes have been unprecedented both in frequency and severity (consider the 4-foot storm surge in Hurricane Irene in 2011). What’s worse, the region’s land is sinking as sea level rises. The cruel trifecta of sea level rise, subsidence, and these extreme weather events, threaten to leave a much of cities like Norfolk under water. When (not if) a hurricane like Sandy touches down in Virginia, it will jeopardize homes, lives, critical infrastructure, not to mention the enormous federal investment in Naval operations. The economic and human harm in the region threatens to be astronomical.

Most importantly, Virginia is working to prepare for these forecasted harms. Leaders in Hampton Roads have expressed their desire to work with state and federal government on climate change in the region. A recent conference on adaptive planning for sea level rise in the region reached maximum capacity, with legislators, local leaders, and researchers coming together to discuss the challenges facing coastal Virginia, and how they can move forward to protect our cities and citizens.

To many, it only seems like a matter of time until Virginia’s perspective shifts from preparation to restoration, unless the region gets attention and assistance from federal resources. Entire communities are at risk, and are waiting to be heard. If the White House wants to learn from communities that are taking steps to protect themselves from extreme weather and other impacts from climate change, Virginia needs to be part of that conversation.

Rachel Cannon is a student at the College of William & Mary Law School, class of 2014.

Renewable Portfolio Standards: To Mandate or Not to Mandate?

Renewable wind-powered turbines off the New Zealand coast.

Wind-powered turbines off the New Zealand coast.

This blog posting represents the first in a debate series developed by authors of Bacon’s Rebellion and Blue Virginia on actions that Virginians can take to address climate change.   All articles will be simultaneously posted on both blogs.

Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) are laws or regulations designed to increase the percentage of energy made from renewable sources. This change is intended to reduce pollution including the CO2 emissions responsible for global climate change. Renewable portfolio standards are usually directed at electrical generation companies. RPS regulations vary from state to state. There are no federal RPS rules.

A typical RPS specifies a percentage of electricity in a state that will be generated from renewable sources by some time in the future. For example, California has an RPS of 33% of its electricity generated by renewable inputs by 2020. Renewable portfolio standards may be either mandatory standards or voluntary goals.

Presently, 29 US states have mandatory RPSs. Eight states have voluntary RPS goals. Thirteen states have no RPS regulation.

Virginia is among the eight states that have adopted voluntary RPS goals.  The Commonwealth has set an RPS goal to generate 15% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025.  This goal is one of the least ambitious among the 37 states that have RPS standards or goals.

RPS regulations are controversial. In the recent Virginia governor’s race Terry McAuliffe supported a move to make Virginia’s RPS mandatory and to increase the percentage of electricity produced from renewable sources from 15% to 25%. Ken Cuccinelli opposed McAuliffe’s plan claiming that mandatory RPS legislation would raise electricity prices and eliminate jobs. However, both Ken Cuccinelli and Virginia environmental groups agree that the existing RPS legislation has been ineffective.

The question before the debaters is this: Should Virginia make its RPS standard mandatory?

Yes – Leading Virginia to a Clean Energy Future
Lowell Feld and “Kindler,” Blue Virginia

The U.S. government is at its most effective when it sets big, forward-looking goals for society – sending a man to the moon, overcoming the Great Depression, eliminating slavery, creating the national parks system.  In each of these cases, we could have said: “no problem, the free market will take care of it!”  But that wouldn’t have gotten the job done, and all of us would have been worse off as a result. 

The ongoing battle against global climate change, caused largely by   the use of fossil fuels, is a classic case of systemic “market failure” necessitating strong governmental action to correct it. In this case, most of the enormous environmental, health and social costs of fossil fuels are simply unaccounted for in their price.  So fossil fuels are priced far lower than they would be if those costs were accounted for — meaning that the oil, gas and coal industries get a free lunch, while we pay for all the damage they cause.

Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) are a highly effective way to begin to level the playing field in ways that make it easier for renewable energy sources to compete.  But since it requires the government to take a stand, we can already hear our conservative friends saying  NO: government must not interfere with the “free market,” government must not “pick winners and losers”,  government screws up everything it touches, we should let the market figure it all out.  So let’s just be clear on  a few key points: Read more.

Yes – Fossil, Nukes Got Support, Why Not Renewables?
Peter Galuszka, Bacon’s Rebellion

Virginia is typically behind the rest of the country when it comes to addressing new problems and finding solutions. Renewable energy is yet another example.

In the middle part of the past decade, undeniable evidence of the threat of climate change became obvious across the globe. A movement began to shepherd a shift to renewable energy-sources – solar, wind, geothermal and others —  by passing laws making it mandatory that utilities obtain a specific percentage of their energy from such sources by set deadlines.

Thirty states and the District of Columbia  — including all of Virginia’s neighbors -– joined the movement for Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) as have other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Poland and Belgium. True to form and genuflecting to big business interests, Virginia made its RPS voluntary. Read more.

No — How a Renewable Portfolio Standard in Virginia Will Punish Electric Customers and Erode Competitiveness
James A. Bacon, Bacon’s Rebellion

What would Henry Howell think of Virginia’s liberals and progressives today? Howell, the populist candidate whose watchword was “Keep the big boys honest,” came within a whisker’s width of defeating the conservative Mills Godwin in the 1973 race for governor. The “big boys” against whom he railed were the senior executives of Virginia’s electric power companies and their minions around the state. The 1970s were a period of soaring electricity prices, and Howell championed the cause of the little guy who saw his paycheck eroded by higher electric bills.

There is no way to know what “Howling” Henry would think of modern-day liberals and progressives if he were alive today, but there is a good chance he would be dismayed by their push for a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in Virginia. In contrast to the voluntary goal in place today, a mandatory standard would require power companies to derive a major share of their electric-generating capacity from renewable fuels such as solar, wind or biomass. The reason it is necessary to mandate the use of these power sources is that they are far more expensive than fossil fuels. Mandating an RPS would add billions of dollars to the rate base of Dominion, AEP and the smaller power companies, resulting in higher electric bills for all Virginians.

A new, multibillion-dollar industry of politically connected insiders – ethanol producers, wind generators, solar power producers, electric car manufacturers — has arisen around the renewable movement on the grounds that the United States and Virginia need to reduce fossil fuel combustion and carbon-dioxide emissions implicated in global warming. Rather than compete on the basis of cost, these rent seekers work the political system to force their uneconomic technologies upon a reluctant populace. They are the unaccountable Big Boys of the early 21st century but there is no Henry Howell to keep them honest. Read more.