Category Archives: Disaster planning

Reliability, Resilience and a 100% Renewable Electric Grid

by James A. Bacon

California is getting a vivid lesson on the trade-offs between sustainability and reliability of the electric grid. Pacific Gas & Electric has taken the extraordinary action of cutting off electric power to 700,000 customers in California to reduce the risk of sparking forest fires. Many customers could go without power for as long as a week; the prolonged outages could cost customers billions of dollars in lost economic activity. Silicon Valley may have the most advanced technology in the world, but the Golden State increasingly resembles a Third World country. (Don’t get me started on the armies of homeless people.)

Virginians need to take notice. Virginia is not California, and Dominion and Appalachian Power Co. are not PG&E. … not now. What is happening in California will not be replicated here. But in our determination to build a “sustainable” zero-carbon grid, other equally horrendous scenarios are possible if we fail to pay sufficient attention to electric reliability.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy this year after being held liable for billions in damages and the loss of lives caused by wildfires ignited by poorly maintained electric lines. As a Wall Street Journal editorial summarizes the train of events:

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Dominion Vies to Become Sustainability Leader — at What Cost?

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Energy is aggressively positioning itself as a leader among U.S. electric utilities in renewable energy and environmental stewardship. Whether the shift in strategic direction will win it any friends among Democrats and environmentalists who increasingly dominate Virginia politics is an open question. The environmental wing of the Democratic Party of Virginia continues to move the goal posts, now embracing the goal of a zero-carbon (and likely a zero-nuclear) electric grid for Virginia by 2050, a vision that is irreconcilable with Dominion’s commitment to nuclear and natural gas for the foreseeable future.

Regardless, like most other electric utilities, Dominion sees the direction the country is heading and is running to catch up. The company has detailed its move toward a renewable energy future in its just-issued Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility Report.

“The people of Dominion Energy are leading the country’s transition to clean energy,” said CEO Thomas F. Farrell, II, in a statement accompany the release of the report. “We are transforming everything we do to build a more sustainable future for our customers, the planet and our company. … We intend to become one of the most sustainable companies in the United States.”

The report highlights the following: Continue reading

Hurricanes, Solar Panels and Grid Resilience

by James A. Bacon

According to what the nation’s ruling elites tell us is the climate-change consensus, a warming climate increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. “Because global warming is intensifying, scientists expect the number of extreme storms to continue rising,” writes David Leonhardt, a New York Times opinion columnist.

One would think, then, that this insight would inform the remedies proposed for climate change, such as re-engineering the nation’s electric grid to rely almost exclusively upon wind and solar power. If the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is increasing, it would be appropriate to ask here in Virginia, what standards do we have in place for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels to ensure that they can withstand hurricane-force winds?

North Carolina had a recent opportunity to observe the interaction of hurricanes and solar panels. Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Tarheel state last month, striking solar a solar farm in Currituck County with wind speeds near 60 miles per hour. The solar arrays are supposed to withstand wind speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. How did they hold up? Continue reading

Should Virginia Beach Buy Out Flood-Prone Properties at Fair Market Value?

by James A. Bacon

As Hurricane Dorian bears down on the South Atlantic Coast, the Virginian-Pilot reports that Virginia Beach officials are considering a program to buy out residents who want to move out of homes that have flooded or face a risk of flooding. The land would be converted into parks, planted with trees, or used as a flood-control projects.

That’s just one of the strategies city officials are pondering to deal with sea-level rise. The seal level in Hampton Roads has increased by a foot since the 1960s, and some climatologists claim that the rate of rise could accelerate. If the city does not take preventive action, writes the Pilot, a projected three-foot rise in the sea level could cost $330 million yearly by 2065.

The Virginia Beach plan would be based on a similar program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., which spends $3.8 million yearly in voluntary acquisitions, funded through stormwater fees, to manage local floodplains. The city assesses which properties are the most vulnerable and targets those first. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Hydroponics, Seawalls, and Emotional Support Critters

The future of Virginia agriculture? Shenandoah Growers, an indoor agriculture company, is undertaking a $100 million expansion of its three locations in Virginia over the next year. The facilities not only grow vegetables and spices in greenhouses, they package and ship the produce, reports the Daily News-RecordLocating the greenhouses next door to the packaging facilities speeds the movement of produce from farm to market, preserving freshness. The website of the Rockingham County-based company describes its grand ambitious: “We are leveraging our indoor bioponic growing technology, national customer network, and distribution channels to be the world’s leading consumer brand of affordable, organic fresh produce.” 

Thirty-one billion bucks for seawalls? Protecting Virginia coastal communities from sea-level rise by building sea walls would cost $31.2 billion to build 4,063 miles of hardened infrastructure, according to a study by the Center for Climate Integrity. That price tag is exceeded only by the cost for Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina. Don’t take it too seriously. This is more environmental doom mongering, which the Virginian-Pilot of course accepts uncritically. The calculations are based on the unrealistic assumption that adaptation to rising sea levels takes the form of building sea walls. For example, the study tabulates the cost of building 645 miles of seawall in Accomack County, 299 miles in Gloucester, 231 miles in Mathews, and 218 miles in Northumberland — an economically idiotic approach to dealing with rising tides and flooding in sparsely populated areas. For the seven densely populated cities of Hampton Roads the cost would run $4.6 billion — a large number but doable, if spread over many years.

Tide turning against “emotional support animal” scam. Virginia landlords have long been frustrated by tenants who skirt lease restrictions by faking disability certifications to qualify their pets as emotional support animals. Continue reading

Norfolk to Create Special Service Districts for Flood-Prone Areas

The City of Norfolk has created a new mechanism for citizens to adapt to flooding and eroding coastlines. Neighborhoods now can vote to form “special service districts” that raise property taxes for projects dealing with flood mitigation, dredging, water quality improvement, and coastal protection, reports the Virginian-Pilot.

Property owners can initiate projects by submitting a petition with signatures from 30% of the homeowners in a proposed district. Once the city has estimated the cost of project, the service district and tax must be approved by 75% of the affected property owners and also by owners of at least 50% of the property value. If the neighborhood votes yes, the district still requires City Council approval.

The Pilot cited the low-lying Hague neighborhood on the edge of downtown Norfolk that might use a district to jump-start much-needed stormwater improvements and floodgate construction.

Bacon’s bottom line: The creation of special service districts represents a huge step forward in building resilience into Virginia’s low-lying communities, although it is only one reform among many that must be made. Continue reading

Moral Hazard and Sea Level Rise

Ann Phillips. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Why aren’t Virginia localities acting more aggressively to protect themselves from rising sea levels? You don’t have to believe in catastrophic global warming to acknowledge that sea levels are creeping steadily higher worldwide or that subsidence caused by shifting tectonic plates and shrinking aquifers is aggravating flooding in Virginia’s Tidewater.

A big reason for the complacency, says Navy Adm. Ann Phillips, is that people think someone will bail them out. Virginia’s coastal-adaptation czar, appointed by Governor Ralph Northam, drove home the point last month at a College of William & Mary forum. Reports the Free Lance-Star:

“As I talked to people about what options are, in passing, to deal with the future, I have a sense that many homeowners feel that the cities are going to bail them out. And that the cities feel that the states should bail them out, and that the state thinks the federal government should bail them out.”

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Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Real. Now What?

Four hundred and fifteen. US News & World Report is reporting that the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere reached more than 415 parts per million. The article quotes research from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography from May 11.  Historical levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were measured through core ice samples prior to 1958 and directly from the Mauna Loa Observatory from 1958 onward. Take a close look at the graph accompanying this article. At first it’s hard to see the vertical line streaking skyward at the right edge. That’s CO2 emissions. From historical peaks oscillating between 250 ppm and 300 ppm over the last 800,000 years to over 415 ppm today. If that isn’t sufficiently startling, the annual peaks over the past few years: 2015 – 405, 2016 – 409, 2017 – 413, 2018 – 413, 2019 – 415 (so far).

Nobody wants anthropogenic global warming to be true but it is true. Continue reading

Dudes, Buy the Friggin’ Flood Insurance!

Source: Virginian-Pilot

Sea levels may be rising and the risk of flooding increasing, but fewer Hampton Roads residents bought flood insurance in 2108 than five years previously, according to data presented by the Virginian-Pilot. Between 2013 and 2018 the number of households with flood insurance declined by about 5%. The only one of seven localities examined that bucked the trend was the City of Portsmouth.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation is collaborating with local and regional authorities in Hampton Roads to boost the number of flood insurance policies. A $100,000 campaign, Get Flood Fluent, has launched a website and will continue with a concentrated ad campaign in print, radio and online. Among the points made: Continue reading

Floods, Roads and Risk Management

Storm-related road repairs in Northumberland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury.

In a blog post yesterday (“Risk and the Fisc”), I cited an Old Dominion University study that guesstimated that Katrina-scale hurricane could cause $40 billion in damages and lost economic activity in Hampton Roads. The cost to the Commonwealth of coping with such a disaster, said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, “keeps me up at night.”

Today comes news that the cost of repairing road damage in the aftermath of Tropic Storm Michael is estimated to be $25 million. Six months after the storm hit Virginia, 17 roads around the state are still under repair, reports The Virginia Mercury. That’s the damage from a tropical storm, which generated a fraction of the rain, wind, and storm surge associated with a Class 5 hurricane.

Crews have been fixing pipes and washed-out roads, mostly inland where heavy rains caused flash flooding. Continue reading

Risk and the Fisc

As the Northam administration’s point man in negotiations with the New York bond-rating agencies, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne spends much of his time worrying about the Commonwealth of Virginia’s credit-worthiness. The state nearly lost its sterling AAA bond rating last year. It was a close thing, he says. Even now, he adds, Virginia isn’t out of the woods.

Layne sees many things that could go wrong. The economy could slip into recession and projected tax revenues could decline. A stock market crash could boost unfunded pension liabilities by billions of dollars. The politicians in Washington could get serious about dealing with the $22 trillion national debt, curtailing the defense spending that undergirds Virginia’s economy.

The risk that “keeps me up at night,” says Layne, is of a Category 5 hurricane ripping through Hampton Roads. An Old Dominion University study published late last year found that a Florence- or Katrina-scale hurricane would cause $17 billion in wind and water damage and another $25 billion or more in lost economic activity. The state would be on the hook for evacuating and sheltering hundreds of thousands of  residents, cleaning up tens of thousands of truckloads of debris, and repairing state-maintained roads and other infrastructure, even as disruption to Virginia’s second-largest metropolitan economy cost millions of dollars in state tax revenue.

The Commonwealth faces huge risks, both short-term and long-term, but few of those risks are accounted for in Virginia’s $21 billion-a-year General Fund budget. The state’s “rainy day” fund and cash reserves are too paltry to buffer the budget from a fiscal shock of any magnitude. Under many scenarios Layne can contemplate, balancing the budget would require horrendous spending cuts.

“There’s no one looking into the future,” Layne says of the state’s biennial budget cycle. “Nobody’s looking beyond two years.” If revenue shortfalls loom more than two years out, he adds, “the attitude is, we’ll deal with that in the next budget.” Continue reading

Antifragile Urbanism, Skin in the Game, and Building What Works

Michael Mehaffy

One of the most important movements to emerge from the late 20th century was New Urbanism, a critique of autocentric suburbanism and architectural modernism that argued for human-scaled development patterns. The most important philosopher to emerge in the early 21st century is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” “Antifragile,” and “Skin in the Game,” among others. I have drawn from the ideas of both for this blog. Now, I’m delighted to see a short, readable essay that synthesizes the two.

In an article published in Public Square, “Beyond resilience: Toward ‘antifragile’ urbanism,” Michael Mehaffy applies Taleb’s concept of antifragility to the building of better places. If you’re looking for detailed policy proposals, this essay is not for you. If you’re looking for more fruitful ways of looking at policy proposals, then you will be  rewarded. Continue reading

Does Virginia Beach Have the Right Investment Priorities?

The City of Virginia Beach has shelled out $265 million in public funds to support 13 major public-private development projects from the Cavalier Hotel renovation to the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Those projects have attracted more than $1 billion in private investment, said Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer in his state-of-the-city address two days ago. “That’s a solid return that has meant money for schools, public safety, roads and other essential city services.”

“I have not always been on board with every public-private partnership as considered, but I do know a good deal when I see it,” Dyer said, according to the Virginian-PilotBut the city’s overall approach to P3s has paid off, he contended. The city has a AAA bond rating. All of its public schools are accredited. And the crime rate is the lowest it has been since the 1960s.

Bacon’s bottom line: Public-private partnership always warrant close scrutiny. Private interests have every incentive to seek public subsidies in order to maximize their private returns, and studies ginned up to support P3 projects often are loaded with dubious and unsupported assumptions. But if a locality works to minimize risks and ensure that each project is cash-flow positive, I can be converted on a case-by-case basis.

Virginia Beach is an especially interesting case because its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its low-lying elevation make it especially vulnerable to the rising sea level. Continue reading

The Polar Vortex: Big Test for Virginia’s Energy Infrastructure

Temperature difference from normal simulated by European model about one mile high into the atmosphere on Wednesday, in degrees Celsius. (Image credit: Washington Post)

Another Polar Vortex is descending upon the United States, and it’s expected to bring record cold to the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. The news media will be full of human-interest stories about new temperature records, homeless people freezing, and disruptions to daily life and business. But the real action will be how the energy industry — electric utilities, natural gas pipelines, home oil deliveries — hold up under the strain. If the system holds together, the harm to human health will be limited. If pieces of the system fail, hundreds or thousands of people could die from the cold.

Judging from the map above, based on the forecast of a European weather model that’s now a few days old, Virginia will be on the edge of the vortex. But we’re part of the PJM Interconnection system, whose territory will be smack dab in the middle of the weather system. Also, bitter cold will strain the capacity of natural gas pipelines to deliver gas used for home heating.

As legislators ponder Virginia’s energy future, debating the proper mix of solar, wind, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electric transmission capacity, this is exactly the kind of extreme-weather event we need to prepare for. We can build an electric grid and gas-pipeline system that can perform beautifully 360 days of the year, but if it isn’t robust enough to handle a polar vortex, hurricane or other infrequent but recurring stressor, the result could be catastrophic. Continue reading

Filling Virginia’s Flood Insurance Gap

by Lisa Miller

A new Federal Emergency Management Agency report is shocking: 69% of Virginia homes in high risk flood zones do not have flood insurance. Another report reveals 17% of Virginia properties should be listed in high risk zones – but are not. Congress’s continued failure to reform an increasingly expensive National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), coupled with last year’s record-setting floods and now Hurricanes Michael and Florence, has created an urgent need to improve the availability and affordability of flood insurance. The Virginia General Assembly and legislatures in other states can help address this dangerous situation by encouraging a larger private flood insurance market.

There is only one private insurance company writing primary flood insurance in Virginia, defined as up to $250,000 in coverage. Although 106,000 Virginians have NFIP coverage, FEMA’s report, “An Affordability Framework for the National Flood Insurance Program,” found that only residents with higher incomes are buying it, leaving an ever-growing majority of others unprotected.  While FEMA studies the situation, the private market is moving ahead and delivering more affordable flood insurance where it can.

New catastrophe models are allowing insurance companies to better understand risk and thus accurately price flood premiums – down to the individual property – providing greater consumer choice and alternatives to the federal NFIP. When state government encourages it, a vibrant, competitive environment emerges as it has in Florida where, in just 3 years, almost 30 companies are offering better coverage at a cheaper price. In Miami-Dade County, ground zero for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, one private insurer’s average premium is $677 compared to the NFIP’s $980 average.

Catastrophe models, model law. The use of catastrophe models in setting rates isn’t new. But it’s usually used together with claims data, something the NFIP hasn’t been willing to share, citing privacy concerns. Also, greater consistency is needed among individual state insurance departments on how catastrophe models may be used in submitting rates.

The National Conference of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) has begun reviewing a simple two-page proposed draft law, based on Florida’s, whose concept is, “If you build it, they will come.” The draft law permits companies, as an example, to test market rates in order to promote competition and choice, with the regulator approving policy language if a state requires a review (some do not) to ensure policies meet or exceed NFIP coverage.

The model law also ensures that insurance agents educate consumers about the dangers of going without coverage, and that insurance commissioners certify that policies are adequate to meet mortgage banking requirements. The safeguards in this simple model law will reduce our reliance on federal flood insurance.

Some in the insurance industry are concerned that this proposed regulation is overreaching or unnecessary. It is nonetheless designed to provide suggestions to regulators and those regulated on how to work together to launch and grow a successful market. What isn’t in dispute is private flood coverage’s cost savings, improved benefits, and greater consumer choice.

Start the conversation. NFIP premiums are rising an average of 8% this year but in some areas by 18%,the maximum annual increase allowed under law. So it just makes sense for state legislators and regulators to begin the conversation to fast-track the growth of a private market, which has the added benefit of spreading the risk to private insurers and away from U.S. taxpayers.

Too many Virginians are unprotected from the hazards of flood waters. There’s an urgent need to improve the availability and affordability of flood insurance so more homeowners are able to buy protection for their property and families. While Congressional paralysis stymies needed NFIP reforms, we must work toward model private flood insurance legislation to let Washington know “we got this.”

Lisa Miller is a former Florida Deputy Insurance Commissioner who served as an advisor on passage of Florida’s key laws encouraging a vibrant private flood insurance market. She is CEO of Lisa Miller & Associates, a Tallahassee, Florida-based consulting firm. @LisaMillerAssoc