Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

The Rise of the New Artisan Class

Botanical etching made by oak and mimosa leaves

Botanical etching made from oak and mimosa leaves. Photo credit: Tracery 157

Cathy Vaughn took the big leap a couple of years ago of going into business for herself as an artisan working in copper. While fabricating trellises, tryptics, candelabras and chinoiserie, she developed a new technique, which, as far as she knows, is a first — creating images upon copper plate from the chemicals found in leaves. The result has been a series of extraordinary images, as seen above, that look as if they could have been lifted from a modernist New York art gallery.

She arranges leaves upon the copper, wraps them in cellophane and sets them aside for about two weeks. Leaves from different species of trees have different chemical signatures, which interact with the copper to leave a wide array of colors. Art meets science as Vaughn arranges different species of leaves in varying patterns to create novel effects.


Vaughn in her studio. Photo credit: Tracery 157

It’s too early to tell if the “botanical etchings” will become a big moneymaker, Vaughn told me at a recent arts and crafts exhibit in Richmond, but early signs are encouraging. I’m no art critic, and I’m not even a fan of modernist art, but I found many of her creations visually arresting, even beautiful. Given the fascinating narrative behind her creations, I would venture to predict that she will enjoy considerable express — not just in Richmond but far beyond.

Richmond is hardly unique in having a vibrant arts community — Charlottesville and Staunton craftsmen were well represented at the particular event I attended — but the arts and crafts movement is growing. Many Richmond-area artists have a connection with Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of the arts, while others with a graphic arts background come from the advertising/ marketing sector. Budding artists are supported by a soft infrastructure: numerous art galleries, and artists’ guild, the Art Works and Plant Zero artists’ studios and the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts.

It’s easy to be dismissive of arts & crafts as an engine of economic growth — the term “artsy fartsy” suggests eccentricity and dilettantism — but a fundamental shift in consumer preference to “mass customization” suggests that artists, craftsmen and the so-called “makers” are a rising economic force. Not only will the revival of artisan create employment opportunities in a slow-growth economy, there is an inherently egalitarian aspect to the movement. Artists, craftsmen and makers are self-employed. They could become the new yeoman class of the post-industrial economy.

An analogy that I draw, and other observers readily accept, is with the beer industry. A couple of decades ago, three or four monster brewing companies dominated the U.S. beer market. The main competition came from major foreign brands. Then the micro-brewery phenomenon took off as consumers revolted against the sameness of the national brands and embraced the individuality of home brews, with their novel tastes, feisty branding and personal connection with consumers. The Brewers Association counted 1,871 microbreweries, 1,412 brewpubs and 135 regional craft breweries in 2014. That year saw the opening of 615 new breweries and only 46 closings. Craft brewers provided 115,469 jobs, an increase of almost 5,000 from the previous year.

The efflorescence of the beer industry is matched, in Virginia at least, with a veritable explosion in the number of wineries, not to mention artisinal producers of meats, cheeses, breads, seafoods, pastas, dressings, sauces, and confections. The Virginia’s Finest website lists 43 categories of made-in-Virginia products from herbs and honeys to soups and nuts.

The revolt against mass standardization is nothing new. The so-called “arts and crafts” movement originated in the late 1800s as a revolt against machine production, and it never disappeared. But arts and crafts appear to be undergoing a resurgence, fueled by the growing hunger for unique, hand-crafted products and the rise of the Internet as an inexpensive distribution and marketing channel. In the future, inexpensive 3-D manufacturing will open up new fields for creative expression and the invention of entirely new products.

The rise of the arts-and-crafts economy is something devoutly to be wished for. Politicians will be tempted to jump on the bandwagon and “help” by doling out subsidies of some kind or another. Arguably, the fastest way to kill the movement is to make it dependent upon government largess. However, public policy probably can contribute to the movement by enabling artists, craftsmen, artisans and makers to form co-ops and mutual assistance societies to provide for common needs such as health care, disability insurance and the like. Tax policy should cease discriminating against the self-employed by extending the same tax breaks for health care provided to corporations, labor unions and other large entities.

For the most part, though, we just need to leave the artisans alone. They are creative people, and we should trust them to figure out what’s best for themselves.

Why T.J. Deserves a Place in Our Pantheon of Heroes

TJ-statueby James A. Bacon

Students at the College of William & Mary have carried on a long tradition of festooning the campus statue of Thomas Jefferson with accouterments ranging from woolen scarfs to party hats. The latest fad is to append the effigy with sticky notes denouncing the founding father as a slave holder, a racist and a rapist. The activity imitates a similar movement on the University of Missouri campus, which has been coupled with a petition to remove a Jefferson statue on the grounds that it was offensive to idealize someone who owned and raped slaves. I don’t know if the anti-Jefferson movement will gain the same momentum at William & Mary, a public university in a state where Jefferson is revered like no other historical figure. But, given the tenor of the times, some kind of debate is inevitable.

TJI find the negative sentiments expressed in the sticky notes to be indisputably true at one level and profoundly misinformed at another. True, by today’s standards, Jefferson’s views and behaviors were reprehensible. He did own slaves. He did sell slaves and break up slave families. He most likely (though not indisputably) did keep a slave woman as a concubine. He did believe blacks to be inferior to whites. It is not unreasonable to ask why, for all his brilliance as an author of the Declaration of Independence, a United States president, an architect, the founder of the University of Virginia, and all-around polymath, we should continue to hold him in such high esteem (or, for that matter, why we should esteem any member of Virginia’s slave-holding aristocracy).

The case I would make for Jefferson (along with James Madison, George Washington, Patrick Henry and George Mason) is not that they reflected 21st-century sensibilities, which they clearly did not, but that they articulated values and principles for the first time in history that laid the foundation for the values we hold today. We could not have gotten to where we are today had Jefferson & Company not laid the groundwork.

Colonial America imported its institutions and mental constructs from a Europe that was emerging from the Middle Ages. Collective entities such as towns, cities, guilds, social classes and ethnicities — not individuals — were imbued with rights. When Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against the autocratic Governor Berkeley of Virginia in 1676, leading a rag-tag band of impoverished farmers and freed slaves, he called for a restoration of the “rights of Englishmen.” Virginians were entitled to rights and privileges, embodied in the Magna Carta and common law that their ancestors had fought for and won. But those rights were not regarded as universal; they were peculiar to Englishmen and derived from English institutions. Jefferson’s great contribution was to draw from Enlightenment-era principles to argue that all men were endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Essentially, he reinterpreted the rights of Englishmen as rights applied universally to everyone. In Jefferson’s formulation, rights did not belong to collective entities; they belonged to individuals, and they were intrinsic to a person’s existence as a human being — the core principle of 21st-century political thought.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Jefferson is that he articulated principles in direct conflict with his own material self interest as a slave holder. While Jefferson indisputably failed to live up to his own principles, it is intellectually facile and lazy to end the discussion there. It is a truism (and one of Karl Marx’s few useful insights) that economic and social classes, both the rulers and the oppressed, create ideologies that support their material self interest. One must ask: How many ruling elites in the history of mankind have ever developed a governing philosophy that undercut their material self interest? How many ruling elites in history have wrestled with the dichotomy between those principles and the way they actually lived their lives, as Jefferson, Madison, Washington and others did? The answer: precious few. Indeed, I cannot off-hand think of any other ruling elite in the history of mankind that has done such a thing.

Jefferson articulated principles that most Americans, including the people who now despise him, hold dear today. We should revere him for making the leap from rights rooted in collective entities to rights applying to all. We should respect him for making that leap in contravention of his own material self interest, and appreciate the fact that the contradiction haunted him until his dying day, even if he failed to free all his slaves and impoverish himself in the process. The journey to equal rights for all Americans certainly did not end with Jefferson, but it started with him, and he rightly deserves a place in our pantheon of heroes.

Do Nukes Have a Long-Term Future in Virginia?

Surry Nuclear power station. Photo credit: Dominion

Surry nuclear power station. Photo credit: Dominion

by James A. Bacon

With little fanfare two weeks ago, Dominion Virginia Power announced its intention to extend the life of its two nuclear units at the Surry Power Station for another 20 years. Commencing service in 1972 and 1973 respectively, the units are licensed to continue operating through 2032 and 2033.

“Over the next several years, we will submit thousands of pages to the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] demonstrating the safety and technical feasibility of extending Surry’s operating licenses,” said David A. Christian, CEO of Dominion’s generation group. “We are excited to be the first utility in the U.S. to begin this process.”

Dominion timed the announcement to coincide with a White House symposium on the future of nuclear energy, during which the Obama administration underlined the importance of nuclear power in the nation’s energy future. “As America leads the global transition to a low-carbon economy,” states a White House fact sheet arising from that event, “the continued development of new and advanced nuclear technologies along with support for currently operating nuclear power plants is an important component of our clean energy strategy.”

The contribution of nuclear power is all the more critical for Virginia, which relies upon Dominion’s four nuclear plants at Surry and North Anna 3 for about 35% of the state’s electric power output. As Dominion scales back its coal-generated capacity in order to meet a Clean Power Plan mandate to cut CO2 emissions 32% by 2030, the company will be all the more dependent upon its zero-emission nuclear plants to meet demand.

Obtaining approvals from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just one hurdle. Virginia environmental groups oppose not only building a third nuclear unit at North Anna, at a mind-boggling cost of $19 billion, but extending the life of existing nuclear units at much lower cost. Glen Besa, executive director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, likens the aging Surry units to an old car. “The older the car is, the more unreliable it is.”

The pros and cons of the two nuclear options — building a new plant and extending the old ones — shake out very differently.

Dominion wants to spend more than $800 million over the next six years on pre-construction design, engineering and permitting work for the North Anna 3 nuclear unit just to keep open the option of building it later, and that’s on top of hundreds of millions of dollars spent and passed on to rate payers already. Dominion’s logic is that  (a) nuclear has zero carbon emissions,  (b) nuclear will be less affected by fluctuations in the price of its fuel source than natural gas, and (c) the company has gotten really good at running nuclear power plants efficiently.

In the current economic environment, however, it’s hard to imagine the State Corporation Commission approving a $19 billion project when the cost of clean wind and solar power is steadily declining and the option always exists to purchase electricity on wholesale energy markets. Environmentalists also will make an issue of North Anna’s location on a fault line and the expense of disposing of nuclear waste.

The Surry project poses very different considerations. First, the capital cost of rehabbing the power plant to operate another 20 years will be modest — in the realm of $1.5 billion or so, roughly the cost of building a major gas-generated plant. Second, Surry’s operating costs are among the lowest in the nation.

In a ranking by Nucleonics Week earlier this year, Dominion’s Surry nuclear stations were the second lowest cost producers of 27 companies that reported their costs to the federal government between 2010 and 2012 — bested only by the company’s North Anna units.

“Safety, operational excellence and low costs are goals we strive for every day,” David Heacock, chief nuclear officer, told Nucleonics Week. “Key to our low-cost performance is our highly skilled and experienced work force in addition to having identical units. It is gratifying to see that we have been very successful when compared to other operating nuclear units.”

“We have a huge advantage in being able to share spare parts, and share workforce and procedures,” Heacock said. The company also gains a cost advantage over other nuclear operators by performing more work in-house.

Besa with the Sierra Club said that nuclear power plants experience wear and tear after decades of operation. Radioactive bombardment can cause the steel and concrete in the pressurized containment vessel to become brittle and less able to withstand the pressure, increasing the odds of a radioactive incident. “The analogy with an old car is a good example,” he said. “All sort of things start to happen when you have an old car. When a car breaks down, it’s just an inconvenience. When a nuclear plant has an accident, it can be catastrophic.”

Dominion responds that the company has a decades-long record of operating nuclear power plants safely and efficiently, and that nuclear provides much-needed diversity to its power portfolio as the company phases out most of its coal-fired units. Too much dependence upon natural gas exposes rate payers to fluctuating gas prices. Gas is cheap right now, but if history is any guide, it could easily double or triple in price in the future. Too much dependence upon wind and solar creates problems as well. The electric transmission grid can handle fluctuations in wind and solar output up to about 35% of total generating capacity. Any percentage higher than that can create interruptions to the power supply.

Extending the life of the Surry nuclear station will provide that fuel diversity at modest cost for years to come, Dominion says.

NOT Every Muslim Is a Terrorist


by James A. Bacon

Conservatives routinely call upon Muslim leaders in the United States to denounce Islamic-inspired terrorism — and overwhelming numbers of them have done so. Now it is time for conservatives to denounce bigotry against peaceful, law-abiding Muslims. I am ashamed that many have failed the test.

Yesterday I posted a piece belittling the whining of Muslim students at Virginia Commonwealth University about perceived slights and insults in classrooms. The answer to such indignities is not to enforce a regime of politically correct thought on campus. At the same time, all people of good will — and that includes me — should condemn bigotry when we see it.

I was appalled to view a living, breathing example of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the video clip, shown above, taken during a meeting yesterday to inform the community about plans by the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg to build an 8,000-square-foot mosque in Spotsylvania County. Many of the attendees at the meeting were concerned about the impact of the traffic generated by the facility on adjacent neighborhoods, not the religious identity of the petitioners for a special-use permit. But some were opposed to a mosque being built under any circumstances.

The bearded man in the video was especially inflammatory. “Nobody wants your evil cult in this county,” he said. I will do everything within my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. … because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists, I don’t care what you say. … You can say what you want, but every Muslim is a terrorist. Period. Shut your mouth. I don’t want to hear your mouth.”

While some people in the audience moaned at his remarks, he received scattered applause from others.

Perhaps the bearded man was an outlier, but similar sentiments run deep in the American electorate. We have been hearing some extraordinary comments from Republican politicians in recent days. In calling for expanded surveillance of American Muslims, presidential candidate Donald Trump declined to rule out tracking them in a national database or identifying their religion on ID cards. Another candidate, Ben Carson, has said that a Muslim candidate would have to reject the tenets of Islam in order to run for president.

News flash, people, the United States is not a “Christian nation.” The very idea is a profound contradiction of the principles of individual liberty that this country was founded upon and that people like Trump and Carson profess to hold dear. Yes, the population of the United States is predominantly Christian, and the founding fathers were overwhelmingly Christian (with the occasional theist, agnostic or atheist thrown in), but a core founding principle of this country is freedom of religion, and that freedom was never meant for Christians only. Even in colonial times, there was a population of Jews. Today the population of the United States includes not only Christians of infinite variety, and Jews, but Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, spiritualists, animists, Unitarians, Scientologists, Zoroastrians, a growing number of atheists and unaffiliated agnostics, and, yes, Muslims. They all enjoy the same rights under the law as Christians.

Given the reality of the war on terror and the prospect that ISIS is infiltrating terrorists into western nations with the flood of mostly Muslim refugees, we may need to take special precautions before letting these refugees into the country. That is a debate that reasonable people can have. But the Muslims in the Fredericksburg area are already here — many, no doubt, are American citizens. We should encourage them to integrate into American society and assimilate mainstream American values. Treating them as pariahs will do the opposite and feed the radical jihadist narrative.

Oh, and one more point. If Americans are concerned about random acts of terror being committed on U.S. soil, let’s keep things in perspective. The Mass Shooting Tracker has recorded more than 300 mass shooting incidents this year, killing more than 400 Americans and wounding nearly 1,200. Some are school shootings, some are suicide-by-cops, and some are tied to drug violence. I think I’m accurate in stating that only one incident — killing five and wounding two — could be construed as an example of domestic, Islamic-inspired terrorism. I don’t see anyone making sweeping denunciations of mentally unstable white adolescents who predominate among the school shooters, or the unemployed, middle-aged white males who predominate among the suicide-by-cop cases. There is no justification for singling out law-abiding Muslims for special scorn.

Neither is there any defending the bigotry on display in Spotsylvania. All Virginians — especially conservatives — should condemn it.

The Whiners and The Doers

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng. Haley credits VCU support network for helping them get this far.

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng with Empower Card. Haley credits VCU’s support network for helping them get this far. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense.

by James A. Bacon

Two stories about Virginia Commonwealth University were in the news today. A front-page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted a forum in which African-American and Muslim students expressed how badly they are treated and how the university needs to make a greater commitment to “diversity.” The other, appearing in the email newsletter of Richmond BizSense, described how two members of VCU’s  2011 Final Four basketball team hope to launch a venture, Empower Card, that will allow purchasers to funnel a portion of their credit card purchases to worthy causes.

The contrast is highly illuminating.


VCU President Michael Rao and VCU student Angelique Scott. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

About 500 people packed the VCU forum hosted by President Michael Rao and gave voice to a succession of gripes and grievances. “VCU has failed black students on many levels,” said Angelique Scott, a junior representing a group called Black VCU Speaks. “We are tired of hearing about old initiatives that have never been set into action.”

Hiba Ahmad, a sophomore from Fairfax, said Muslim students have become fearful in the wake of terrorist attacks and “a growing rhetoric of Islamophobia.” Students “who display their faith very visually” through their dress are concerned for their safety, she said.

There was a lot of talk about fears and perceptions, but no mention of anything tangible. Have minority VCU students been assaulted? No such incidents were reported. Has anyone been physically bullied? Again, no mention. Ahmad took objection to classroom discussions in which “hurtful” and “disrespectful” comments about Muslims are made and the failure of professors to back up the Muslims. Another student spoke about feeling “marginalized” when he discovered he wasn’t invited to a cookout at a professor’s home.

Poor, delicate flowers.

We don’t know how representative the views of these 500 students are, but Rao legitimized them by saying the university is trying to create a more welcoming environment. “Let’s just face it, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The urgency is more serious than I think some might grasp.”

It is important to note however, that the wallowing-in-self-pity movement does not represent the views of all minority VCU students — just the noisiest ones. We hear a very different story from fledgling entrepreneurs D.J. Haley and Rob Brandenberg, two recently graduated members of VCU’s most celebrated basketball squad. Their idea is to use credit and debit cards as vehicles for businesses and consumers to donate money to participating not-for-profit causes.

Working with a company called Linkable Networks to provide the technology, Haley and Brandenburg have launched a website and are lining up businesses and charities to take part. The idea is that participating businesses would build their brand and customer loyalty by funneling 5% of the credit-card charge to select charities.

For now, reports BizSense, the company is in the very early stages. Haley, who works for a marketing advisory and data intelligence firm in Northern Virginia, and Brandenberg, who works for CornerstoneRPO, a corporate recruiting company in Richmond, are working part-time on the enterprise. Among other hurdles, they figure they need about $50,000 to get the venture off the ground. “We’re betting on the intent to do good works,” said Haley.

How was their experience at VCU? Here’s what Haley said: “We were fortunate to be exposed to great people and great principles,. The other thing that we’re working with is how intertwined we are with the VCU community. We’re confident we have the support we need to make this thing happen.”

I am awaiting the day when Rao holds a forum for ambitious, striving and upwardly mobile students like Haley and Brandenburg. I am guessing that he would get very different feedback. VCU faces a critical choice: Which constituency does it choose to empower — the whiners or the doers? If VCU wants any kind of future, it should cast its lot with the doers.

Battle Lines Forming Over Clean Power Plan

Attorney General Mark R. Herring

Attorney General Mark R. Herring

The partisan battle lines are forming over the implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for Virginia to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from state power plants 32% by 2030.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, announced two weeks ago that Virginia will join a coalition of 17 other states supporting the Obama administration against a lawsuit filed by 24 other states. Foes of the plan argue that the EPA far exceeded its legislative authority in regulating CO2, and observers say the case could well reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Del. Israel O'Quinn, R-Washington.

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington.

Meanwhile, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, has introduced a bill that would require the General Assembly to approve and oversee implementation of the plan in Virginia. While the Clean Power Plan mandates CO2-reduction targets for each state, it allows each state to figure out how to achieve the goals.

Herring justified his support for the plan on the grounds that climate change “is a real and urgent threat to the health and safety of Virginians, our environment, and our economic success as a Commonwealth.” By way of specifics, he cited the threat of sea-level rise in Hampton Roads that could displace residents and businesses and threaten Naval Station Norfolk, and the prospect of extreme weather, droughts and floods. said Herring: “It’s long past time to acknowledge these realities and take decisive action.”

O’Quinn’s bill would require the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to work in conjunction with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to prepare a report assessing the plan’s effect on the Virginia’s electric power sector, electric customers, jobs, economic development, economic competitiveness,  and state and local government.

The report also would identify new state laws that might be needed to implement the plan, study whether to rely upon EPA measures for calculating the CO2 reduction goal, and report on whether the Commonwealth should invest in energy efficiency programs, promote non-emitting nuclear power or participate in multistate programs. The report also would advanced recommendations on how best to avoid stranded investments in power plants that would be shuttered before they were fully paid off.

Getting answers to those questions is probably a good idea — the more information, the better — but sure to be controversial is the final item in the bill: “DEQ shall not submit to the EPA any state plan until both the Senate and the House of Delegates have adopted resolutions that approve the state plan in accordance with this act.”

It is safe to predict that the McAuliffe administration will not respond favorably to the idea of requiring the Republican-dominated General Assembly to approve the plan. Separation-of-power issues are potentially at stake here as well as ideological differences over climate change. Look for this to become a hot topic in the 2016 session.


Best Cities for Small Black Business


Source: Thumbtack annual small business friendliness survey.

I don’t know how valid these findings are, based as they are upon only 1,663 responses to a national small business survey, but they are encouraging. Nine of ten of the cities rated highly by African-American small businessmen (and women) are located in the South and two — Richmond and Virginia Beach — are located in Virginia.

The questions posed by the Thumbtack annual small business survey asked small business owners (1) How friendly is your city? (2) How easy was it to start a business? and (3) Would you encourage others to start a business in your city?

Small business is an important path of upward mobility for African-Americans in a lackluster economy. As Thumbtack notes:

Bacon’s bottom line: Conservatives should never give up appealing to the African-American electorate. While the political left in the United States cultivates grievance and outrage, the political right emphasizes economic opportunity and upward mobility. Leftist-progressive policies destroy economic opportunity and engender bitterness; conservative, market-oriented policies create opportunity and hope. Which one will win in the long run? The one that offers opportunity and hope.


Du Bois-Washington Debate as Relevant as Ever

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

by James A. Bacon

As debate rages in the comments section of Bacon’s Rebellion over the legitimacy of the demands made by African-American student activists at Virginia Commonwealth University last week, I asked myself whether differential graduation rates between different race/ethnicities might be playing a role in the frustration experienced by the student militants. The answer is, probably not. What I found instead was an upbeat story, which, though a few years old, reflects well upon the VCU administration — and, to my mind, represents exactly the kind of policy the university ought to be pursuing.

A pair of reports issued by The Education Trust in 2012 found that VCU had eliminated the graduation gap between African-American and white students between 2004 and 2010, raising the black graduation rate from 34.5% to 49.8%. VCU ranked 16th nationally on the list of “Top 25 Gainers in African-American Student Graduation Rates among Public Institutions,” according to a report summary prepared by the VCU news office. Results improved for Hispanic students as well.

The key to success? VCU’s University College, a program that prepares entering students for college-level work.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

“Our Focused Inquiry Program helps new students experience a college curriculum in a very short time,” said Joseph Marolla, vice provost for instruction and student success. From the article:

The Focused Inquiry I and II courses are the central component of the University College curriculum. Those courses target oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, the development of quantitative abilities, information retrieval and evaluation and collaborative work.

Class sizes are limited to 22 students. Marolla said the 43 faculty members teaching at University College are critical to the success of the program and its students.

Here is a program with 43 faculty members — an expensive commitment — geared to help insufficiently prepared students achieve success at the university.

This strikes me as money well spent. VCU’s proper priority is providing African-American students the academic support that allows them to complete their graduation requirements.  It also strikes me that anyone interested in improving the prospects of African-Americans in Virginia should be focusing on substantive issues like on-time graduation instead of politically potent but ultimately trivial issues such as those articulated by the VCU student protesters.

What we’re seeing played out in the modern American campus is a reprise of the old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago. Where should African-Americans focus their energy: upon education and self-improvement or advancing a civil rights agenda? Du Bois won that debate, resulting in sweeping and much-needed civil rights reforms in the 1960s. Economic gains for poor African-Americans since then have been limited, but African-American political and thought leaders have shown relatively little interest in revisiting core assumptions in light of new conditions. White micro-aggressions and insufficient support for campus cultural institutions aren’t what’s holding back African-Americans today, either at VCU or society at large. Low graduation rates in high school and college are.

As PBS summarizes his thinking, Washington seems more relevant than ever: “He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.” That assessment may or may not have been valid in the 19th century when virulent racism was still prevalent, but it may be the best path forward for African-Americans in the 21st century when only vestiges of racism survive.

VCU’s African-American students need to ask themselves which will benefit them most: more self improvement and educational achievement or the cultivation of resentment and grievance over symbolic issues.

Dominion’s Proposed Six-Year, Virginia Infrastructure Spend: $11.7 Billion


Source: Chmura Economics & Analytics

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Resources proposes to expend $11.7 billion over the next six years on energy infrastructure serving Virginia, including new generating plants, electric transmission lines, a gas pipeline and environmental clean-up, the company announced today. Of that amount, an estimated $5.7 billion will be spent in Virginia, producing a direct and indirect economic impact averaging $1.68 billion per year over the six-year period.

“Our growing Commonwealth requires an expanding and reliable energy infrastructure,” said Paul Koonce, CEO of Dominion’s Energy Infrastructure Group and president of Dominion Virginia Power. “Our capital investment program over the next six years is designed to meet that need and achieve environmental goals of the federal Clean Power Plan.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe weighed in with a favorable comment upon the investment program. “In order to build the new Virginia economy, we must have low-cost, diverse and reliable energy resources. These investments not only build upon an already solid foundation for economic growth in Virginia, they also create tens of thousands of jobs and produce billions of dollars in capital that benefits the Commonwealth today.”

Only one project on the list, construction of the Brunswick County gas-fired generating plant, has received regulatory approval. Others are at various stages of development, from being “on the drawing board” to moving through the regulatory process, according to Dominion spokesman David Botkins. Especially controversial are the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline; continued pre-construction development of the proposed North Anna 3 nuclear power plant; and several proposed electric transmission lines; all of which are opposed by landowners and/or environmentalists. Also controversial, because of potential impact on rate payers, is a proposal to put vulnerable electric distribution lines underground.

Assuming all the projects go forward, the economic impact on Virginia would be considerable. According to a study commissioned by Dominion and conducted by Chmura Economics & Analytics, Dominion’s capital investment would inject $771 million directly into Virginia’s economy in the first year, 2015, and would generate an additional $579 million in indirect and induced impact for a total impact of nearly $1.4 billion. Total impact would peak in 2017 at $2.5 billion and then level off around $1 billion annually in subsequent years.

About half the impact would come from construction spending, the press release stated, while “the rest would result from growth in other sectors of the economy as spending spread.”

Frank Rambo senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, responded in an email communication that Dominion should reallocate its investments from capital-intensive projects, which “produce high shareholder profits at the ratepayers’ expense,” into more labor intensive energy resources such as renewable technologies and energy efficiency. A shift from an over-reliance on natural gas to clean energy, he said, “will not only create more jobs but also help lower electric bills and create healthier communities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The impact of Dominion’s proposed energy projects on Virginia’s economy would be considerable. More important than the short-term stimulus of the design, engineering and construction work is the necessity of expanding the capacity of Virginia’s energy infrastructure to meet the anticipated growth of Virginia’s population and economy — a critical point made in the press release by Virginia Chamber of Commerce CEO Barry DuVal. That benefit, not captured by the Dominion numbers or the Chmura study, would dwarf the impact of the capital expenditures themselves.

However, not all energy projects are created equal. Some offer a higher risk-adjusted Return on Investment than others. Is it worth $808 million to keep open the option of a third nuclear power unit at the North Anna power station that even Dominion concedes would cost rate payers $19 billion — with no guarantee that the project ever will be built? Is it worth spending $1 billion to bury roughly 20% of Dominion’s local distribution system to reduce the number of electric outages and shorten recovery times during major storm events?

Perhaps more fundamental is the question of what kind of electric grid Virginia wants to build. Dominion’s vision of the energy future is one in which Dominion continues to play a major role, building the power plants (including nuclear, natural gas, solar and wind), the electric grid, and the natural gas pipeline to supply the gas, all embedded in the larger, multistate PJM Interconnection system in which Dominion would swap electric power with out-of-state power producers as needed to meet peak demand and ensure reliability. Dominion’s critics envision a decentralized future with more wind and solar generated by independent, small-scale power producers less dependent upon large-scale transmission lines that shuttle electric power long distances. The costs and benefits of the competing visions are all but impossible to estimate with econometric models.

Dominion Acquires Accomack Solar Plant

solar_panelsby James A. Bacon

Dominion Energy, an unregulated subsidiary of Dominion Resources, announced today that it will acquire a planned 80-megawatt solar facility on the Eastern Shore for an undisclosed price. The solar plant, the largest yet announced in Virginia, will supply Amazon Web Services data centers in Northern Virginia.

Dominion is purchasing the project from Community Energy, Inc., which had announced the project in conjunction with Amazon back in June. Community Energy had consolidated 44 properties into a 900-acre site near a Delmarva Power electric transmission line in Accomack County and inked the necessary agreements with Amazon, PJM Interconnection, Delmarva Power, Dominion and municipal authorities. Construction is expected to begin in 2015, and the plant is scheduled to enter service in fall 2016.

“We look forward to expanding our relationship with Amazon as it seeks to increase the mix of renewable energy on the electric grid powering its data centers,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Dominion. “This project also shows Dominion’s commitment to building additional clean, renewable solar facilities in Virginia.”

Through both its regulated and unregulated subsidiaries, Dominion has ramped up its commitment to solar power in the past year. Dominion Virginia Power has set a goal of building 400 megawatts of large-scale solar by 2020, and it filed with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) in October for approval of three separate projects in Powhatan, Louisa and Isle of Wight counties totaling 56 megawatts. Shortly thereafter, the SCC rejected a previously filed proposal to build a 20-megawatt solar facility near its Remington gas-fired power plant. The commission ruled that Dominion needed to seek third-party market alternatives before building its own facility.

Dominion also purchased in October a 25-megawatt facility under development in North Carolina by Invenergy, Inc., a Chicago company. That facility will supply electricity to the Naval Station of Norfolk, advancing the Department of Navy’s goal of bringing 1 gigawatts of solar electricity into procurement. Moving in a parallel track, Dominion has built a significant solar portfolio in six other states across the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: While Dominion may not be  moving quickly enough to satisfy some of its environmental critics, the company clearly is upping its commitment to solar energy. I expect the pace to pick up. As a regulated utility, Dominion Virginia Power in particular has a conservative corporate culture that puts the reliability of the electric system at the top of its list of priorities. The company is determined to move cautiously, adding solar in incremental steps and building experience not only in how to develop and operate solar facilities but in how to integrate the fluctuating energy production into the electric grid.

What I can’t get a handle on is the economics of solar. Yes, yes, as a broad generality, the cost of solar is declining steadily, and one day could be the most economical form of energy on the grid. But how economical is it in Virginia now? What are the trade-offs between high up-front capital costs and zero fuel costs? I just can’t get the numbers. Everyone seems bound by non-disclosure agreements, and no one is releasing the numbers. I’ll write more about that shortly.