Reliability, Clean Energy, and an Aging Grid

Concerns about the reliability of the U.S. electricity supply has popped into the news headlines recently. The problem isn’t terrorists or cyber-attacks, it’s the inability of electric grid to handle routine challenges. Earlier this month, a transformer fire in Manhattan knocked out electric power to about 73,000 customers. On the West Coast, PG&E is spending $2.3 billion to fix a backlog of deficiencies in its transmission and distribution system that contributed to the record outbreak of wild fires in California last year. Meanwhile, the company has announced its intention to preemptively turn off power on vulnerable circuits to limit wildfire risk.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2017 infrastructure report card. States the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card:

Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. … Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.

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Putting a Partisan Spin on Ideologically Driven Research

Photo credit: Washington Post

Social scientific studies are increasingly infected by ideological bias and a crisis of unreplicable results. Compound that with the ideological bias of the mass media, which spin findings to advance their own partisan narratives, and you get articles like this one from the Washington Post: “Trump’s presidency may be making Latinos sick.

Trump’s presidency may be making some people sick, a growing number of studies suggest. Researchers have begun to identify correlations between Trump’s election and worsening cardiovascular health, sleep problems, anxiety and stress, especially among Latinos in the United States. A study published Friday using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the risk of premature birth was higher than expected among Latina women following Trump’s election.

This is the same kind of junk reporting of tendentious science that we see increasingly in Virginia, where newspapers report on “studies” showing “correlations” that supposedly demonstrate the existence of systemic institutional racism. It’s not impossible that some of the studies are valid. But they need to be subjected to much closer scrutiny before being accepted and propagated widely, as they invariably are. Continue reading

True: Marijuana Arrests in Virginia Still Climbing

Based on data from the latest Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia” report, Attorney General Mark R. Herring recently noted that Virginia arrests for marijuana-related charges increased 3.5% in 2018, capping off a tripling of marijuana-related arrests since 2002.

“While other states are moving to a more sensible approach to cannabis, Virginia is still moving in the wrong direction. It makes absolutely no sense,”Herring said in a press release. “Marijuana arrests are now at their highest level in at least two decades and maybe ever, meaning that even more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives. Now is the time to put a stop to this costly, unfair, and ineffective approach, and to pursue a better, smarter, fairer course.”

Yesterday I promised to take a closer look at the crime data to see if Herring’s representation of the marijuana-related arrest trends is fair. As far as I can tell, it is. But the conclusions he draws may not be. Continue reading

Sense and Nonsense on Climate Armageddon

R. Dean Decker, Ph.D.

A good sense discussion on the Most Important Threat to Human History was provided July 14 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in a guest column from a retired University of Richmond biology professor.  Few discussions of the climate change controversy have come closer to my personal views, but Dean Decker has that doctorate from North Carolina State so let him make the case.  Read it in full here.

The nonsense appeared quickly with what I suspect will be one of many letters to the editor seeking to tear down his argument (and I suspect the man, but I hope the RTD will weed out those letters.)  The letter accused him of “a disservice to science” and inspired me to give Decker’s column a slightly wider audience.

More nonsense appeared even earlier, this from the Man Who Won’t Be King, Charles Prince of Wales.  “I am firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival.”  I ran across that in a post on one of my favorite websites on this issue, wattsupwiththat.com. Searching for a more direct source of the quote, I found that HRH has been issuing these Al Gore-like jeremiads for years.

Yet more nonsense in today’s RTD with this piece on the “hottest June on record.”  At least reporters are careful now to add the “on record” disclaimer, given the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and efforts at worldwide measurements maybe a few decades old.  Certainly pre-satellite data is worthless for such comparisons.  Continue reading

Police Antisocial Behavior, Not Addictions

It’s one thing to be intoxicated — another to pass out on a public park bench.

In an 8-7 vote, a federal appeals court has struck down a Virginia law punishing “habitual” drunks. The law targeted homeless people struggling with alcoholism, thus “criminalizing an illness,” reports the Washington Post. Further, the court found the law to be unconstitutionally vague.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. Alcohol addiction is an illness, and money might well be better spent providing treatment to homeless drunks rather than incarcerating them. On the other hand, the law provided local police a tool for maintaining public order. Eliminating the law invites drunks and derelicts to occupy public spaces where they might infringe upon the rights of others.

To my mind, it is crucial to distinguish between the illness and the behavior — and this applies to intoxication with marijuana and other drugs as well as alcohol. While addiction should not be a crime, police should address public intoxication when a person’s behavior becomes threatening or disruptive.

In perusing the Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia 2018” report, I note the following numbers (combining figures for adults and juvenile): Continue reading

A Closer Look at the 2018 Hate Crime Data

The Virginia State Police have published their Crime in Virginia update for 2018, and it is worth noting what Attorney General Mark R. Herring is focusing on in a press release issued today — the fact that marijuana arrests increased 3.5% last year, more than tripling since 1999. No mention of hate crimes.

Last year Herring launched his bid for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination with a roadshow decrying a supposed surge in white supremacist hate crimes. But the number of total hate crimes in Virginia, including those allegedly perpetrated by whites and those allegedly perpetrated against blacks, declined last year, continuing a long-term downward trend.

Not only were there fewer hate crimes reported in Virginia last year, most of them were minor in nature. None were homicides, only one was arson, and only seven were classified as aggravated assault. Given how elected officials and the media have magnified the issue of race and ethnicity in the public discourse today, the fact that race- and ethnic-based hate crimes declined in the Old Dominion last year suggests that the public attitudes and behaviors are not nearly as polarized as those of the political class. Continue reading

Virginia Unemployment Fund Gains In Good Times

2018 labor force participation rates. Source: VEC. Click for larger view.

Laissez les bon temps roulez. Virginia’s strong employment climate is adding a financial spare tire to Virginia’s unemployment trust fund, now above 83 percent solvency by one actuarial measure and exceeding a federal recommended minimum balance on another measure.

The annual unemployment fund status update for a legislative oversight commission Wednesday lasted about 30 minutes, with the chairman, Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, noting it was far shorter and less dramatic than some previous meetings in tight times, adding “it’s a good drama not to have.” The presentation is here.

The projected $1.45 billion fund balance for next December 31 will be another record, said Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess. The figures used are not adjusted for inflation, however, and the state has been at higher solvency levels in previous periods of prosperity. The funds are just sitting there earning interest and awaiting the next recession, which history deems inevitable.

The previous bottom for the fund came in 2010, and Virginia needed to borrow federal funds in 2010 and 2011 in order to pay unemployment benefits. The fund has been climbing back since 2012, and Hess projected an 86% solvency level and almost $1.6 billion balance for 2020. Will this unexpectedly long expansion reach through 2020?  Continue reading

Virginia Mercury At One: Kicking GOP Butt

Success and quality demand recognition, so congratulations to the folks at Virginia Mercury for one year of e-publication.  It represents the future of journalism, which is nothing short of tragic.

Not that a deep progressive bent (or conservative for that matter) has been unknown in journalism.  Most of the great early publications had political backers, and truly independent reporting has been largely mythical.  Everything old is new again.

I remember years ago learning that the page layout mock-ups marked certain advertising blocks so, for example, no story would be placed about lung cancer on the page selling Marlboros, or the plane crash wouldn’t be reported next to the Piedmont Airlines ad.  But with those ads for all to see, we knew who was paying the bills for the daily output of The Roanoke Times.  We have no idea who is paying the bills and potentially pulling the strings at the new internet periodicals and dailies.

What is going on with the Virginia Mercury is part of a major trend, with the progressive groups apparently far ahead of conservatives.  This account published by Capitol Research tracks the history and growth of the movement, a debatable account but impossible to just dismiss.  If those who view any tax preferences as a “subsidy” are correct, then the 501(c) status enjoyed by Virginia Mercury and its financial supporters means we are all paying the bill for their messaging. Continue reading

The Latest Front in Virginia’s Energy Wars: Rural Electric Co-Ops

One in six Virginians get their electricity from a rural electric cooperative. In theory, because co-ops are owned by their electrical customers, the interests of owners and customers and owners are aligned — in contrast to Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., in which the interests of stockholders and customers often come into conflict. But in the real world, the agency problem intervenes: The electric co-ops are run by professional managers, and a question arises as to whether entrenched management is putting its own interests ahead of the owner-customers they serve.

The policies of Virginia’s electric co-ops has been the source of considerable consternation among environmentalists. As noted last month by Ivy Main, a Sierra Club of Virginia blogger and contributor to the Virginia Mercury, “While a few co-ops have adopted innovative customer-friendly programs, most actively resist change.”

By “actively resisting change,” Main refers to their reluctance to embrace the environmentalists’ clean energy agenda. Coal accounts for 75% of energy generated by electric cooperatives nationwide, compared to less than 28% for all utilities nationally. “Worse,” she writes, “failing to see the promise of distributed generation, most co-ops have locked themselves into long-term supply contracts that give them little room for self-generation with solar and wind. … In fact, stuck with the dirty black stuff, rural electric cooperatives are much more likely than investor-owned utilities to support coal and oppose climate regulations.” Continue reading

Blackface, Wayne Newton, and the Top State for Business

Congratulations, Virginia, you’ve clawed your way back to the top of the heap, proclaimed by CNBC to be the Top State for Business in 2019. The honor is well earned. As Wayne Newton said in a nine-minute CNBC piece: “Hi, I’m Wayne Newton, born and raised in Virginia. Now here’s why Virginia has been named the number one state for business…”

Wait… What? Wayne Newton? I thought he lived in Las Vegas. Come to think of it, aren’t those palm trees in the background?

The CNBC ranking — based on 60 metrics of competitiveness in workforce, education, economy, infrastructure, cost of doing business, and quality of life — is a useful exercise. (You can view the methodology here.) Virginia does excel in the quality of its workforce and education. With luck, the attention generated by the study will stimulate out-of-state companies to consider locating in the Old Dominion. But I’m not sure if the CNBC profile accompanying the annual report represents a net gain or net loss for the state’s reputation. Continue reading

Starbucks Past and Future

From hole-in-the-wall…

For coffee lovers like Laura and myself, no trip to Seattle would be complete without a pilgrimage to Starbucks. Down at the city’s famous farmer’s market, the retail giant still maintains the very first store it opened (pictured above). The progenitor Starbucks shop sold coffee, pastries and spices. You won’t find spices there anymore. The king of caffeine finds it more profitable to peddle Starbucks-branded kitsch to a stream of tourists so endless that they line up outside and, to prevent overcrowding in the hole-in-a-wall shop, are waved through in twos and threes.

As Starbucks has grown into a globe-straddling enterprise, it experiments with new concepts. You can get a feel for the company’s new directions by visiting the Starbucks Reserve complex on Pike Street (pictured below). Don’t be surprised if some of these retail ideas appear in a shopping center near you.

…to sprawling retail mega-center

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Seattle’s Pocket Parks


I’m back in Richmond, batteries recharged. Many thanks to Steve and Dick for keeping the fires of rebellion stoked in my absence. Laura and I visited the great Northwest, a region extending from Seattle and Victoria (British Columbia) in the south to Juneau and Glacier Bay in the north. As always, I kept my eyes peeled for examples of place making that might prove instructive to Virginians. Today, let’s talk about pocket parks. Seattle has lots of them.

By way of preamble, there are some things Seattle gets wrong. The city has one of the most acute affordable-housing issues in the country, and it has a homeless problem to match. We encountered numerous homeless people downtown, some of them begging, some of them sleeping in doorways or on benches, and a couple of them sprawled unconscious on the sidewalk. When we were walking off our jet lag early one morning, a woman dropped her pants in plain view and relieved herself on the pavement. So, I’m under no illusion that Seattle is an urban paradise.

But the city does have a lively downtown. The streets remain busy during nights and weekends — at least they do on balmy, sunny days like those we were lucky enough to experience. Downtown is highly walkable. The secret is wide sidewalks, vibrant streetscapes and pocket parks. Continue reading

VRS Hybrid Plan Drawing Even Fewer Contributions

Virginia Retirement System overall investment returns, all funds. Source: JLARC

The percentage of state employees making voluntary contributions to their own retirement pot, contributions which are matched with free money, has continued its rapid decline over the past year.  As of March 2019, fewer than half of state employees who should be investing in their own retirement are doing so, according to a Virginia Retirement System update Monday.

A year earlier, according to the comparable report given the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and reported on Bacon’s Rebellion, 58 percent were contributing something and drawing in matching funds.  A year before that it was 79 percent.  Just how much money the 52 percent adding nothing this past year failed to invest, and how many matching dollars were therefore not captured, is not in the report.

The full VRS presentation to JLARC is here and here is the JLARC staff’s own summary, both of them presented to the legislators Monday.  In general, the pension system is reporting another good year, with a total return on all investments of 4.7 percent against its industry benchmarks of 3.7 percent.  VRS underperformed benchmarks on its stock investments, however, both for the past year and the past three years.  It uses March 31 as the end of its reporting periods.  Continue reading

Speaking of Mental Health–Virginia has a Crisis

The Commonwealth is experiencing a crisis in its mental health system.  The situation is the result of some positive initiatives of the General Assembly, coupled with the legislature’s reluctance to provide the funding needed to deal with the results of those initiatives.

The crisis is an acute shortage of mental health treatment beds. Around the first of this month, the Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) warned “there will be times over the July 4th holiday weekend when there will not be any open staffed beds at any of the state hospitals.”   And the July 4 weekend was not an aberration. The state’s adult mental health hospitals operated at 98 to 100 percent capacity in May and June. One day this month, the two hospitals that treat elderly patients had more patients than beds.

The state has reduced its mental health bed capacity in recent years, going from 1,571 beds in June 2010 to 1,491 beds in FY 2020, a reduction of five percent.

During that period of decreasing bed capacity, the General Assembly took two actions that have resulted in a significant increase in mental health admissions. Continue reading

Yes, Mental Illness is Key, Says U.S. Secret Service

The United States Secret Service, probably not a tool of the gun-loving American right, has just issued a report on 2018 mass shootings with a strong focus on the mental health problems displayed by the shooters. Clearly it didn’t get the same memo received by our friends at Blue Virginia, who think any such discussion unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill and distracts from the real villains: guns themselves.

Let me get this right: Democrats don’t want to stigmatize the mentally ill, but are all too happy to blame the millions of law-abiding gun owners and subject them all to new regulations or restrictions, up to and including search, seizure and confiscation?  Continue reading