Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Here Comes the Sun

Solar panel harness energy of the sun

by James A. Bacon

By some measures, solar energy looks like the most cost-effective path for Virginia’s electric utilities to achieving Environmental Protection Agency targets for reduction in CO2 emissions. A solar-intensive scenario has the lowest average levelized cost of four alternative scenarios explored in the 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) published by Dominion Virginia Power today. But the power company still has major concerns about how the inherently variable power source could be safely integrated into the power grid.

Dominion submits an annual IRP to the State Corporation Commission providing a 15-year outlook on what facilities and fuels will best meet customers’ electricity needs at the lowest cost in an efficient and reliable manner. Despite reservations, the 2015 plan views solar more favorably than did the 2013 plan.

Dominion had to grapple with big uncertainties in the 2015 study because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet set final targets for Virginia to reduce its CO2 emissions. The targets in the draft EPA guidelines call for Virginia utilities to make 38% reductions by 2030. But the McAuliffe administration and the State Corporation Commission pleaded for relief on the grounds that the draft targets were so stringent. The EPA is expected to issue final rules next month.

Dominion explored four broad strategies for attaining the draft EPA goal: a solar plan with a high concentration of solar resources; a co-fire plan, using natural gas to reduce the carbon intensity of eight coal-powered units; a nuclear plan, which would construct a third nuclear unit at North Anna Three; and a wind plan, with significant on-shore and off-shore wind development.

Dominion did not recommend any one plan over the others. A letter accompanying the submission of the IRP said that other plans, or even hybrids of the plans, might be considered.

A portfolio risk assessment of the four plans factoring in such variables as natural gas prices, coal prices, electricity demand, CO2 emission prices and capital costs over a 25-year period showed that the levelized average cost for solar exceeded that of the “least cost” plan (which would not achieve EPA compliance), but it was the least expensive of the four alternatives. Wind was the most expensive.

portfolio_risk_assessment

According to the cover letter, the cost of compliance above the least-cost scenario range from $4.3 billion for Plan A: Solar to $15.3 billion for Plan D: Wind. However, the IRP stressed the hazards of integrating a large amount of solar power into the electric grid. The problem stems from the intermittent nature of solar — it generates electricity only when the sun is shining. States the IRP:

The intermittent availability of solar energy due to cloud passage causes sporadic injections of energy into the grid, impacting key network parameters, including frequency and voltage. While the grid may not be adversely impacted by the small degree of variability resulting from a few distributed PV (photovoltaic) systems, larger levels of penetration across the network or high concentrations of PV in a small geographic area will make it difficult to maintain frequency and voltage within specified limits. Addressing grid integration issues is a necessary prerequisite for the long-term viability of PV generation as an alternative energy resource.

Significant resources would have to be dedicated to maintaining grid reliability in the face of the wide variability in solar output. Development of a technology to store solar power, which would help level out power flows, is “paramount,” Dominion says.

The anticipated growth of solar PV energy generation will result in significant challenges to the Company’s grid as well as the interregional grid as a whole. … The industry needs an understanding of the critical threshold levels of solar PV where significant system changes could occur. The nature and estimated cost of those changes are still unknown at this stage, but these costs, particularly at the higher penetration levels, could be substantial.

In a statement released before Dominion’s IRP went public, a coalition of environmental groups said that Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., which also submitted its 2015 IRP today, need to make “utility-scale investments” in offshore wind and solar energy, while also making it easier for customers to generate their own solar-generating resources on their own property.

“Dominion has stated that building solar is beneficial for customers because it is cheaper than market purchases of of a grid that consists primarily of coal and natural gas,” says the press release under the name of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Yet all renewable resources in Dominion’s territory amount to just 2% of the company’s energy mix. Dominion’s latest proposal for a new 20-megawatt solar farm in Remington, Virginia, equates to just one-tenth of 1% of Dominion’s 17,500-megawatt generation fleet.”

The statement did not address the impact of large-scale solar development upon the reliability of the electric grid.

Disgraceful

Richmond City Hall

Richmond City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Fiscal Year 2015 in Virginia came to a close yesterday but the City of Richmond still had not filed its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for FY 2014, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The report provides an audited overview of revenues, spending, assets and debts critical to appraising a locality’s financial condition.

The City of Richmond is one of only three localities still to have failed to issue the report, the filing deadline for which was seven months ago. With a population of 218,000, Richmond is by far the most populous of the three, which includes poverty-stricken Wise County (pop. 40,000) and the town of Dumfries (pop. 5,100).

“A ten-month delay for something that should be a basic function of government is unconscionable,” said City Councilman Jonathan T. Baliles. “This is what happens when you ignore the fundamentals of government.”

City officials, reports the TD, have cited employee turnover, a lack of training and challenges in implementing a new financial system as reasons for this year’s delay. In other words, city officials blame dysfunctional management.

The problems did not materialize overnight, however. The city issued emergency procurement documents for outside help from an independent consultant to ensure timely completion of the 2013 CAFR. Payments to that consultant have risen from an anticipated $95,000 to $295,000 under  March contract extension.

Shortly thereafter, the city’s auditing firm, Cherry Bekaert, fired the city as a client. According to the TD, partner Eddie Burke cited “a high-risk, dysfunctional working environment that ‘has continually gotten worse every year.'” Ask yourself: How bad did the situation have to be for a midsize CPA firm to turn down a $320,000 annual contract?

Bacon’s bottom line: As Baliles says, balancing the books is fundamental. Add this failure to a string of other spending and administrative scandals over the past few years, and it seems pretty clear that government in Virginia’s capital city is a mess. It wasn’t always this way. Long-time residents remember when Robert C. Bobb ran the city in the 1980s as one of the most effective city managers in the country.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of one person — the mayor — to ensure that the city functions properly. While Mayor Dwight C. Jones is good at striking the right rhetorical chords on a variety of issues, he has proven ineffectual as an executive.

I admire Jones’ response to the controversy over the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, including the statues along Monument Avenue. “Rather than tearing down,” he said recently, “we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history.” Those are the words of a uniter and a healer, not a divider.

But I’m concerned that Jones doesn’t have much interest in the nuts and bolts of government. Perhaps that is understandable considering that he has divided his time between his responsibilities as mayor, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church and for a year, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. But when he does focus on his mayoral duties, instead of making sure the trains run on time, Jones has promoted high-profile projects like the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, the Washington Redskins training park and the World Road Cycling Championship.

Private investors are pouring money into the city. What most of them want to see, however, isn’t wheeling and dealing that rewards a privileged few. They want to see a city that does the things that cities are supposed to do. Like close out the books on time.

What It Takes to Power the Cloud

power_lineby James A. Bacon

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. The “rural crescent” in the western reaches of Prince William County has fended off development threats from Disney’s America to four-lane highways. The latest hazard to rural tranquility: a proposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center and an electric transmission line to deliver electric power to it.

Emulating the success of its neighbor Loudoun County in encouraging data-center development, Prince William economic development officials have sought to recruit lucrative data centers in the county. Data centers generate tremendous local taxes — roughly $1 million annually per data center in Loudoun — while making minimal demands on local government services.

However, data centers do require electricity — lots of it. Someone has to generate that electricity, which can be an issue because no one wants power plants nearby, and someone has to deliver the electricity, which also is an issue because no one likes looking at power lines. In the case of western Prince William, serving a new AWS facility with electricity would require Dominion to build a six-mile, 230,000-volt transmission line from Gainesville to Haymarket, according to the Washington Post. And many locals don’t want a power line any more than they wanted a Disney theme park or an outer beltway.

Prince William Supervisor Peter K. Candland  is skeptical that a new power line is needed to serve the community, where growth is largely discouraged. “In the last four years, we’ve only approved about 400 new homes and one senior living community,” he told the Post. “I don’t see any other developments on the horizon,” he added. “We’re in a holding pattern.”

Haymarket Mayor David Leake says the power line is “really for one customer, for one need” — Amazon.

Dominion, for its part, says, “The determination has been made that the need is there.”

AWS operates one data center on John Marshall Highway, and county economic developers have held discussions with a local property owner to accommodate another one, including a Dominion sub-station to serve it. Given local resistance, however, the property owner told the Post that it would not seek the zoning necessary to build one.

Bacon’s bottom line: This controversy is instructive in so many ways. First, it shows that localities seeking to bolster their tax base with data centers need to plan for them. Loudoun County is ahead of the game, having developed a special zoning category for data centers and planned for them in other ways. Judging from the Post article, Prince William seems to be winging it.

Second, the hoo-ha in Prince William highlights a potential obstacle to achieving the kind of energy conservation called for by environmentalists to meet the goals of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. One of the biggest potential sources of energy efficiency is migrating business data and computing from energy-inefficient in-house servers to state-of-the-art data centers maintained by cloud providers like AWS, Google, IBM, Microsoft and others. Data centers can reduce the energy cost of storing and processing data by 80%. They reside in inoffensive buildings that generate little traffic and impose few costs on local government, but they require electric power. Supplying that power sometimes requires building new sub-stations and transmission lines. If the United States, as a society, is serious about achieving gains in energy efficiency, it needs to figure out how to build the sub-stations and power lines needed to power the cloud.

An Update on the Tysons Makeover

Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

Planned Tysons street grid. Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

by James A. Bacon

Transforming Tysons in Fairfax County from an “edge city” into a walkable, mixed-use urban district may be the biggest, most ambitious suburban makeover ever attempted. Anywhere. In the history of the human race.

The obstacles are formidable. The area grew up in such a helter skelter manner, and the layout of streets, buildings and parking lots are so thoroughly auto-centric in design, that Tysons’ built environment will have to be rebuilt from stem to stern. The cost of creating a street grid and providing transportation connections in and out of the district will run into the billions of dollars. It’s not clear where the public dollars are coming from. And it’s not clear either, given Northern Virginia’s current overbuilt office environment, whether the private dollars will be forthcoming any time soon.

But Fairfax County and Virginia are plunging ahead with the decades-long effort. In a presentation to the Tysons Citizens Coalition two weeks ago, Tom Biesiadny, director of Fairfax County’s department of tranpsportation, gave a recap of where things stand. I did not attend the meeting, so I did not hear Biesiadny’s remarks, but a long-time friend of Bacon’s Rebellion who goes by the pen name of Too Many Taxes shared the presentation with me. While the numbers come from Biesiadny, the commentary that follows is mine.

Existing development consists of 48.6 million square feet of mostly commercial office space, with some retail and a smidgen of housing thrown in. Another 2.8 million square feet is under construction, with 45 million square approved or proposed. The street grid won’t be built until landowners begin re-developing their properties and completing their links in the grid.

Tysons is caught in a Catch 22. The real estate market is moving towards walkable urbanism, but Tysons has little walkable urbanism to offer. While developers can create small islands of mixed-use walkability, the fundamental character of the district won’t change until a critical mass has been attained. Until that critical mass is attained, Tysons will suffer a competitive disadvantage with downtown Washington, Arlington, Alexandria and other locations where the walkable, mixed-use fabric is already in place.

Planners are counting upon completion of the first phase of the Silver Line spur on the Washington metro to jump start the development. However, at present, Silver Line ridership averages around 16,000 boardings per day, according to Biesiadny. After nearly a year since the Silver Line opened, ridership falls far short of the 46,000  forecast made as recently as 2013 in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s marketing plan. (Update: I have been told that comparing 16,000 boardings to 46,000 total riders is comparing apples and oranges. Sixteen thousand boardings translates into 32,000 trips, or riders. Thus, ridership has fallen short of projections but not by as grievous a margin as implied.)

Other parts of the plan appear to be unfolding on schedule. Six major road projects are in the works. Farthest along is a Route 7 bridge over the Dulles Toll Road, for which a design-build contract has been approved. Funding has been approved for a widening of Route 7. Four other projects are in various phases of study and design.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is working on Tysons’ bicycle and pedestrian connections. Twelve projects have been completed, nine are under design, nine are in the land-acquisition phase and five are under construction. A Virginia Department of Transportation repaving project will add eight miles of bike facilities this summer.

Also of note, the Tysons Partnership has developed a transportation demand management program that will provide services to property owners on a subscription basis. Services include trip reduction strategies, ride-matching assistance, telework support, transit incentives and monitoring of travel behaviors. So far, eight companies have signed up.

Bacon’s bottom line: My reading of this presentation is that Fairfax County is doing all the right things but the Tysons makeover still has a long, hard climb ahead of it. We may not see much visible progress until the Northern Virginia commercial real estate market rebounds strongly, vacancies fall and developers have an incentive to start building again. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not close to the situation and my interpretation could be all wrong.

The Energy Paradox of Virginia-based Data Centers

Loudoun County promotion for its data centers.

Loudoun County promotion for its data centers.

by James A. Bacon

There’s a fascinating paradox in the energy economics of data centers. Outsourcing data storage and computing to hyper-scale, hyper-efficient data centers allows businesses to conserve energy and consume less electricity than they would otherwise. But the outsourcing phenomenon increases demand for electricity where the data centers are clustered.

Because so many state-of-the-art data centers have located in Northern Virginia, Loudoun County in particular, and because those data centers are serving customers as far afield as Philadelphia and Charlotte, outsourcing reduces overall electricity demand compared to what it would be otherwise but also concentrates that demand in a localized geographical area.

That paradox might — and I emphasize might because there may be mitigating factors of which I am unaware — undermine the case that Virginia can meet its proposed goals for the Clean Power Plan through energy conservation. Data centers are a major force in driving electricity demand higher for Northern Virginia utilities, primarily Dominion Virginia Power and the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative.

Here’s how outsourcing promotes energy conservation: Thanks to economies of scale and the pooling of customers with diverse peak demand, data centers can store and process the same amount of data with a single server that most businesses handle with four. Fewer servers translates into less electricity consumed. Moreover, because state-of-the-art servers invest in more efficient cooling systems, their servers sip less energy. Combine the two and the synergy is powerful. “This represents an 88% reduction in carbon emissions for customers when they use AWS vs. the typical on-premises data center,” writes Jeff Barr for the official Amazon blog.

For good reason, environmental groups have targeted data centers as one of the most promising strategies for improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. If all data centers could achieve just half the savings available by attaining industry-leading performance standards, writes Pierre Delforge with the National Resources Defense Council, the country could save  39 billion kilowatt-hours annually — “equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of nearly all the households in the state of Michigan.”

What applies to the nation, however, does not apply to locations where data centers are clustered. Playing on its location on the Northern Virginia fiber network, a tech-savvy workforce and an expedited permitting process, among other advantages, Loudoun County has targeted data centers for economic development. The 60 or so data centers in the county don’t support many jobs — although the jobs are high paying — but they give a massive boost to the tax base. Buddy Rizer, Loudoun’s economic development director, says data centers contribute $70 million a year in local taxes. Better yet, they create very little demand for local services. Every locality in Virginia would love to recruit data centers if it could.

This enters the debate over implementation of the Clean Power Plan because energy efficiency is one of the strategies which the Environmental Protection Agency says states can use to reach their goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from its electric utilities. The goals effectively force Virginia power companies to shut down their least efficient coal-fired plants, with lost capacity to be made up through increased use of natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency.

The operative question is how much can Virginia reasonably expect to reduce electricity demand through energy conservation? Environmentalists say that energy efficiency can help reach the Clean Power Plan goals but power companies say the savings will be offset by increased demand from other sources — such as more electric gadgets and appliances, greater use of computer power and data and, eventually, more electric vehicles. State Corporation Commission staff have expressed skepticism that energy conservation can compensate for shutting down coal-fired power plants, especially if Virginia does not build a new nuclear reactor at North Anna, as some environmental groups propose.

A new study shows that investments in household energy conservation may be far less cost-effective than thought. “The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings,” states a University of Chicago Study, “Do Energy Efficient Investments Deliver? Evidence from the Weatherization Assistance Program.” “Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.”

Can conservation investments in a business setting like building automation or data outsourcing, where the ROI can be much higher, take up the slack? Perhaps it can on a national level, but it’s harder to make the case in Northern Virginia, where data centers are, in effect, sucking up electricity demand from other parts of the country, even the world.

A Landmark Day for the Rule of Law

Chief Justice John G. Roberts: "It depends on what the meaning of 'state' is."

Chief Justice John G. Roberts: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘state’ is.”

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that wording in the Affordable Care Act — that subsidies should be limited to health care exchanges “established by the State” — did not mean what it plainly said and that Congress “meant” for subsidies to be made available to federally established exchanges as well.

In a series of other dramatic rulings, the Supreme Supreme also ruled that the sky is green, one plus one equals three and the laws of physics are subject to judicial interpretation.

— JAB

Business-Labor Coalition Enters Pipeline Debate

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

by James A. Bacon

More than 100 business, labor and economic development organizations have announced the formation of an advocacy group, EnergySure, to promote the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The founding members “represent millions of employees and associates across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina,” says the organization’s press release.

EnergySure is being funded by the four Atlantic Coast Pipeline partners: Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. “The ACP partners serve millions of homes and businesses that depend on the companies to meet their energy needs,” states the group’s website. “The EnergySure Coalition was created as a platform for these consumer voices to be heard.”

The proposed 550-mile pipeline would transport natural gas originating from fracked natural gas fields in West Virginia to markets in Virginia and North Carolina.

The advocacy group comes together in response to spirited opposition by landowners along the proposed route, especially in bucolic Augusta County and Nelson County in Virginia. Led by the All Pain No Gain group, foes say the pipeline would harm property values, contaminate water, pose a safety risk and negatively impact local craft agriculture while doing little to create jobs or lower energy prices.

EnergySure hits three main themes in support of the pipeline:

Reliable energy. Virginia and North Carolina need a reliable supply of natural gas to support economic growth. Utility demand for natural gas is expected to triple as power companies in Virginia and North Carolina retire coal-fired power plants and burn cleaner natural gas in its place. Pipeline advocates also assert that existing pipelines are approaching maximum capacity and the inability to bring more gas into the region will make it difficult to recruit manufacturers that require natural gas in their processes.

Economic development. Pipeline construction will support 17,240 jobs across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, asserts EnergySure. Longer term, the pipeline also will save Virginia and North Carolina consumers $377 million yearly over the next 2o years, which in turn will stimulate local economies.

The money consumers save on energy each year could help support 2,200 jobs when reinvested back into Virginia and North Carolina’s economies. Over the next 20 years, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is projected to generate $7.5 billion in energy savings, $2.6 billion in labor income and $4.4 billion in gross state product to Virginia and North Carolina.

Another bonus: Projected cumulative property taxes are estimated at $25 million annually.

(The website does not say where the economic impact numbers come from. The data comes from a report, “The Economic Impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” written by ICF  International, a Northern Virginia professional services firm, for Dominion Transmission Inc. ICF utilized its Gas Market Model and Integrated Planning Model to model the North American gas and electric markets with and without the pipeline. )

Green energy. Two waves of federal regulation — one enforcing stricter standards for emissions of toxic chemicals and the other curtailing carbon dioxide — leave Virginia and North Carolina power companies with little choice but to substitute natural gas for coal in their fuel mix. In addition, gas-fired power plants serve as back-up for solar and wind power, whose power output varies with time of day and weather conditions.

As for local environmental impact, EnergySure concedes that there will be “temporary disruption” during the construction phase, but that “most of the land” the pipeline crosses will return to its original land use. Also, inspectors will be conducting tests through the construction process to ensure water quality remains the same as it was before.

Bacon’s bottom line. With the publication of the EnergySure and All Pain No Gain websites, the battle lines are drawn and the issues clear for all to see.  At the moment, the conflict is shaping up as a David and Goliath contest: rural landowners in Nelson and Augusta counties pitted against the business, labor and economic development establishments of three states.

It remains to be seen how two important constituencies align themselves. Outside property rights groups have not yet played a vocal role in the debate so far, although one would think that they would sympathize with local landowners. Another potential ally, the environmentalist movement, appears to be conflicted. Environmentalists typically side with landowners seeking to protect the local environment against disruptive construction projects, and some environmental groups oppose anything that would promote the production and consumption of fossil fuels (including natural gas) for any reason. On the other hand, pragmatists in the environmental community recognize that the energy economy cannot transition away from coal without more natural gas. To date, major environmental groups have kept a low profile in the pipeline debate.

Politically speaking, the entry of dozens of business, labor and economic development organizations on the side of the pipeline partners would seem tip the odds strongly in favor of the pipeline.

Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility.

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility on the Eastern Shore.

Amazon’s giant solar power plant will lighten the environmental footprint of the company’s growing cluster of Northern Virginia data centers. It won’t do much to lighten the tax burden of Accomack County.

by James A. Bacon

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-services business unit of retailing giant Amazon, made big energy news earlier this month when it announced plans to build an 80-megawatt solar generating plant in Accomack County. The nearly 1,000-acre facility will be one of the biggest solar power plants east of the Mississippi, generating enough electricity to power 15,000 homes or, to use a more appropriate unit of comparison, about 200,000 servers.

AWS was tight-lipped about the project, declining to answer questions posed by Bacon’s Rebellion and binding business partners such as Dominion Virginia Power and A&N Electric Coop on the Eastern Shore to non-disclosure agreements. All the company was willing to say in its press announcement, above the sparest details, was that the electricity will be delivered into the electric grid through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to serve “both existing and planned AWS datacenters in the central and eastern US.”

“We continue to make significant progress towards our long-term commitment to power the global AWS infrastructure with 100 percent renewable energy,” said Jerry Hunter, Vice President of Infrastructure at Amazon Web Services. “Amazon Solar Farm US East … has the added benefit of working to increase the availability of renewable energy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Neither the Governor’s Office nor the Virginia Economic Development Partnership issued its own press release — highly unusual in a deal reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch to be valued at $200 million, surely one of the biggest investments by an out-of-state company in the Old Dominion this year. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. Even the state’s solar energy expert, Ken Jurman with the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, was kept out of the deal-making loop. “You probably know as much about it as I do,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion.

Too bad nobody’s talking because there is a fascinating back story here: the rapid rise of Northern Virginia as the leading locus of AWS data centers in the United States. According to a Greenpeace investigation of the Amazon cloud, AWS has publicly admitted to more than 10 data centers in its US East “Availability Zone,” but based on diesel permits for backup generators filed with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the total number of AWS data centers operating or under construction in Virginia stood at 23 in May.

Regarding 2014 energy consumption, said Greenpeace, “AWS expanded the capacity of US East by over 200 MW (megawatts), as much as the total amount of capacity in the rest of its U.S Availability Zones combined, bringing the total energy demand capacity of AWS facilities in Northern Virginia to 500 MW.”

AWS is under heavy pressure from environmental organizations to conserve energy or find zero-carbon emission sources for its energy-chugging server farms. If Greenpeace’s estimates are anywhere near accurate, the Accomack facility will supply only a modest fraction of the company’s total power consumption in Northern Virginia. AWS’s commitment to go 100% renewable suggests that the company could be on the prowl for significant additional solar capacity in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Meanwhile, the company is using the caché of the East Coast’s largest solar facility to drive a hard bargain with local government.

Accomack officials are excited about AWS’s decision to locate in the county, whose economic base is primarily farming, agribusiness and tourism. “This puts an Amazon-branded facility in our county,” beams Steven B. Miner, county administrator of Accomack County. But, he adds, “They’ve made it very clear that these [solar] projects are very sensitive to taxation.” Tax concessions are expected from the county.

Big data needs a home

Northern Virginia has the largest cluster of data centers in the world, and Loudoun County the largest percentage — about 80% — of any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia. Buddy Rizer, director of economic development for Loudoun County, says there are “sixty or so” data centers in Loudoun County at the moment. The number is always changing because “there hasn’t been one day in without data center construction in six years.” All the major players have a presence in Loudoun, he says. “Facebook has their largest footprint anywhere in the world here. … Visa has its main credit card processing plant here. You swipe your credit card anywhere in the world, and it’s using our infrastructure here in the county.” So dominant is Loudoun, he says, that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic moves through the county. Continue reading

Is NoVa over the Job Hump?

Nova_jobs

Annual Job Change, Northern Virginia, 2002-2015. Image credit: Terry Clower.

There has been considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth over the abrupt halt in economic growth in Northern Virginia due to sequestration-mandated cutbacks in defense spending and other federal government programs. My fellow Bacon’s Rebellion bloggers and I have led the wailing chorus. Indeed, Don Rippert engaged in some ferocious teeth gnashing in a post this morning.

There’s no question that the Northern Virginia economy has under-performed the national economy over the past two years. But there is evidence to suggest that Virginia’s economic engine may be over the hump. That chart above comes from Terry L. Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, who presented it during a business round table sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Institute two days ago.

After shedding thousands of jobs in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the federal government has stabilized employment, actually adding a few in 2015. After declining for three  years straight, federal procurement inched back up in 2014. Perhaps most important, Northern Virginia’s professional & business services occupational category grew by 5% between April 2014 and April 2015. That category is the economic driver of the Northern Virginia economy, and the fact that it is expanding faster than federal employment and federal procurement suggests that maybe, just maybe, Northern Virginia tech sector is diversifying beyond the federal government.

It’s hard to imagine that the federal government, with its severe long-term budget constraints, can resume the spending growth path that propelled the Washington metro economy for so many years. Still, there are signs that Northern Virginia businesses are adapting to the new normal. I’m hopeful that the promising statistics represent more than a dead cat bounce.

– JAB

Personally, I’d Like to See More Zulu Taught in Virginia Schools

LEP2The United States draws immigrants from all around the world, and Virginia is no exception. That creates a challenge for public schools, which are obligated to provide an education to all comers, even if they have limited proficiency in English. It’s one thing to find teachers to teach English as a Second Language to Spanish-speaking students, of whom there are more than 66,000 in Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Education data. Spanish-fluent teachers are not difficult to find. It’s quite another to track down someone to teach a native speaker in Eskimo, Middle High German, Efik, Kpelle, Gaelic, Northern Tiwa or Sanskrit, each of which has only one student speaking the language.

For your viewing pleasure, I have extracted the Top 10 foreign languages spoken by limited-English-proficiency students. Click on the link to view all the others.

(Hat tip: James Weigand, who notes: “Taxpayers spend around $110 million annually for LEP children in Virginia.  Who ever knew there were this many languages?  Or this many LEP students?”

(P.S. There are four Zulu speakers in Virginia schools. I have been a huge fan of Zulu history and culture since my short-lived study of African history at Johns Hopkins forty years ago. I, for one, would welcome more Zulus in Virginia.)

— JAB