Category Archives: Environment

Carbon Tax for Your Car, SUV Takes Shape at TCI

 

By Steve Haner

In this politically sensitive moment, they don’t call it “cap and tax” but instead “cap and invest.” Yet, the recently released draft Transportation and Climate Initiative proposal fits a Bacon’s Rebellion prediction in March that next they would be coming to tax your SUV.

Reducing CO2 emissions from electric power plants with a cap and tax scheme is not enough, of course. More of those dread emissions (you and I call it exhaling) come from vehicles, despite rapid improvements in engine efficiency and alternatives to fossil fuel combustion. The Northam Administration has Virginia fully engaged. Legislation to require General Assembly approval for this regional compact was vetoed.

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A Sound Business Decision… or More Virtue Signaling?

Recharging an electric school bus. Photo credit: Dominion Energy

Governor Ralph Northam has pledged to put $20 million from the Volkswagen diesel-emissions settlement toward the purchase of zero-emission school buses, the governor’s office has announced. The program, to be administered by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), will help local school systems to replace about 75 diesel-fueled buses and reduce CO2 emissions by 36 million pounds per year, the administration says.

It’s a nice little feel-good story. But, as I attempted to conduct some elementary cost-benefit analysis, I found that the numbers don’t make sense. And even if they did, there are probably more cost-effective ways to save the planet from the climate apocalypse.

Here’s how it works. DEQ will reimburse local school systems up to $265,000 per electric bus, which is approximately the difference in cost between purchasing a diesel-powered bus and an electric bus. While the electric buses can save $2,000 a year in fuel costs and $4,400 and maintenance, the extra up-front investment is a big hurdle. The new program eliminates that barrier, creating financial savings for the locality and a reduction in CO2 emissions as well. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Many Grand Schemes but No Numbers on Cost

VCU’s new master plan. You can tell when you’ve entered most universities because you must pass through impressive-looking gates. You don’t know when you’ve entered Virginia Commonwealth University because the urban university bleeds into the surrounding community. The university’s new ONE VCU master plan will address that by creating two create two “Front Door” projects identifying entrances to the campus, reports Virginia Business. The land use/facilities planning document also calls for improving pedestrian safety — there were 47 pedestrian accidents in 2018-19 — addressing the parking shortage at the medical campus, and providing more bike lanes, among other initiatives. No numbers on cost.

Carbon Neutrality by 2050. Governor Ralph Northam set a goal earlier this month of a zero-carbon electric grid by 2050. Arlington County has gone one better: total carbon neutrality within three decades. The plan approved Saturday envisions a locality where “all electricity will come from renewable sources, where more residents will drive electric vehicles and more will use transit, and where homes and buildings will be more energy efficient,” reports ARL Now. While some hailed the plan, others said it wasn’t ambitious enough and relies too much on technology-based solutions. No numbers on cost.

Mo’ money for schools! Adjusted for inflation, state funding for K-12 education per student is still down 8% from pre-recession levels, finds the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI) in a new report. That sounds terrible — no wonder our schools are having so much trouble! — but the report doesn’t tell us the full picture of what student funding looks like when accounting for federal support and local spending. Is per student spending up, down, the same? CI doesn’t say. However, the report does contain some useful information on inputs — changes in the number of teachers, instructors, support staff, and teacher aides. The assumption is that more spending and more staff = better outcomes. Does it? No numbers on that.

— JAB

Update: I have re-written the original post on “Mo’ money for schools” to reflect the fact that CI provides more data in its report than I originally acknowledged. Further update: Upon reflection, I regret my knee-jerk reaction to CI’s implicit call for mo’ money. The statistical profiles of each school district contain loads of information — especially on staffing levels — not readily available anywhere else.  Kudos to CI to bringing more transparency to school funding and staffing. I fully intend to draw upon this data in future posts.

Environmental Balderdash: Exporting CO2 to EU

Source: Rachel Carson Council, cited by Cindy Elmore in RTD. Click for larger view.

by Steve Haner

In parts of Virginia, conservation groups are being paid by California to preserve forest land because trees capture the CO2 considered the culprit in global warming. In other parts of Virginia, large swaths of trees are being cut to convert into biomass fuel for European power plants, based on a claim that is a way to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

It would be so much easier to accept the climate crisis doomsday scenario if the proponents were not so contradictory and hypocritical. In both cases, the Californians and Europeans are doing this so they can keep pumping CO2-rich emissions into their atmosphere. They obviously don’t really fear CO2.  Continue reading

Bacon Bits: River Preservation, Truth in Tuition, and Election Interference

Goat Island

Good deed of the day. Riverside Outfitters, which provides guided kayak, raft, tube, and paddleboard trips, has paid $11,000 to purchase Goat Island, a one-acre islet in the James River. The outfitting company will make the island openly available for public use as a destination for canoers and paddleboarders, reports Richmond BizSense. The company plans to rid non-native plants from the islet and, if legal, bring back some goats, but has no plans to develop it. The James River may not be as big and powerful as other rivers, but it is more beautiful than most. While other metropolitan develop their riverfronts, the Richmond region has moved to preserve the James as an environmental and recreational treasure. Smart move!

Truth in tuition. Randolph College has slashed its list price for tuition, room, and board from $54,101 to $36,000. Pursuing a high-tuition, high-discount model, the small liberal arts college near Lynchburg had been discounting heavily from that price. But administrators concluded that the high sticker price was scaring away potential applicants, reports the News & Advance. Not realizing that the average discount rate for freshmen at private colleges averages more than 50%, many families don’t even bother applying to schools with high list prices. Randolph College, which has 620 students enrolled, hopes to increase the entering class by 5% yearly over the next five years.

Dodge Challenger has become a verb. Daniel McMahon of Brandon, Fla., has been arrested for charges relating to cyber-stalking and threats that led to an African-American activist, Don Gathers, dropping out of a race for Charlottesville City Council. McMahon, a white supremacist, “was motivated by racial animus and used his social-media accounts to threaten and intimidate a potential candidate for elective office,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, in a statement. “Hey Antifa, it’s simple,” McMahon wrote online, reports the Washington Post. “Wanna know how to not get Dodge Challenged or shot? Don’t attack Right Wingers ever.” James Fields, the white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville two years ago, drove a Dodge Challenger. Disgusting.

— JAB

Dominion’s Move Against Green Competitors Fails

by Steve Haner

The verdict is in and green energy virtue in Virginia’s electricity market remains available in monthly increments. You do not need to be green twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, tracking every change of demand.

That was the requirement demanded by Dominion Energy Virginia in its recent effort to block competitive service providers who are taking away customers who want 100% renewable power. In a 22-page opinion issued today (here), the State Corporation Commission rejected every Dominion assertion across the board. It said the two companies, Calpine Energy Solutions and Direct Energy Business, are operating within Virginia law.  Continue reading

Northam: 100% Clean Energy by 2050

by James A. Bacon

Governor Ralph Northam has issued an executive order outlining how Virginia can reach the goals of producing 30% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and 100% from carbon-free sources by 2050. The governor’s vision relies heavily upon solar power, offshore wind, and energy storage, while emphasizing “energy equity” for “communities of color” and lower-income Virginians.

Northam’s plan relies heavily upon Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., to make investments in solar, wind, and energy-storage, and contemplates no significant changes to the existing electric-utility framework. The plan also has won the blessing of at least one of Virginia’s leading environmental groups.

“Governor Northam’s announcement today shows real leadership on climate change in the face of its absence at the federal level,” said Will Cleveland, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in a prepared statement. “It’s time for this kind of cost effective, smart and modern solution to bring Virginia into the future.” Continue reading

Down to the Nitty Gritty on Solar Farm Development

by James A. Bacon

If Virginians want more renewable energy, they need to solve a number of practical problems. One of those is how to decommission old solar panels and wind turbines. When their useful lives have expired, we can’t just let these devices litter the landscape and collect rust. In particular the question of what happens to old solar panels, which contain high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, is one that has concerned many residents of rural counties where solar farms have been proposed.

SolUnesco, a Reston-based developer of solar farms, has given considerable thought to how to plan for the end of utility-scale solar projects. As Lea Maamari and Melody S. Gee write in a company blog post, “finding a good balance of shared benefits, costs, and risks is in the best interest of all stakeholders.” Continue reading

Saving the Potomac Aquifer

The SWIFT research center. Photo credit: Philip Shucet

by James A. Bacon

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to dealing with increasingly stringent clean water regulations. One is to make incremental upgrades with the idea of deferring expensive capital outlays as long as possible, which is what most local governments do. The other is to go big and go bold — the option pursued by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) in its $1.2 billion Sustainable Water Initiative For Tomorrow (SWIFT) project.

As a regional sanitation district serving a population of 1.7 million, the HRSD has the size and resources to undertake projects of a magnitude that smaller municipal systems could only dream about. Under regulatory pressure to reduce algae bloom-causing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater released into the Chesapeake Bay, HRSD is implementing an ambitious scheme to treat the water and then pump it back into the Potomac aquifer. The hoped-for result is to slow the rate of land subsidence that contributes to increased flooding in the region.

HRSD’s ambitions are on display at a $25 million research center in Suffolk near the Monitor-Merrimac bridge tunnel. There, researchers are tweaking the process for cleaning about one million gallons daily — not only removing phosphorous, bacteria and viruses but breaking down organic chemicals found in medications tossed into sinks and toilets — to drinking water quality. By 2030, HRSD will apply the technology in five full-scale facilities capable of treating around 100 million gallons daily. Continue reading

Fungible (and Vintage?) Green Virtue, For A Fee

Renewable energy certificates can have a vintage? Some might prefer fresh solar or wind power.

by Steve Haner

Like most major electric utilities now, Dominion Energy Virginia has a certain amount of energy generated by processes now designated “renewable.”  Hydro power has been around for a long time, and now that is supplemented by a growing number of solar generators – owned by the company or under contract to it.

All Dominion customers are getting some of their electricity from those sources.  Everyone is a little bit green.  But for an extra $4.21 per 1,000 kilowatt hours, some other customer can take away your green power and leave you less green or totally not green, at least on paper.  Overall the utility’s output stays the same, but it might pick up a few more dollars per month from up to 50,000 of its customers.  Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Whistling Past the Graveyard

Feel-good story of the day. Northern Virginia boy scouts have cleaned up the neglected Alexandria cemetery named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They raked leaves, trimmed trees, and installed a new sign, according to the Washington Post. The black cemetery fell into disrepair over the years because no Alexandria church or other nonprofit cares for it; the city of Alexandria allocates only a nominal sum for upkeep, mostly mowing.

Boomerang watch. The Mountain Valley Pipeline has suspended all construction activities that could negatively impact four endangered or threatened species: the Indiana bat, the northern long-eared bat, the Roanoke logperch, and the candy darter, reports Virginia Mercury. For the time being, the pipeline company will refrain from tree-clearing, non-maintenance-related road building, grading and trenching, and stream-disturbing activities. Inquiring minds want to know: If such activities are permanently banned in and around habitat of threatened species, will it be possible to build wind turbines anywhere in the Blue Ridge or Allegheny Mountains?

The real structural racism. John Butcher delves into the latest SOL scores for Richmond’s Carver Elementary school, where cheating by teachers and administrators had artificially elevated SOL test scores last year. Now that the testing issues have been resolved, the tragic dimensions of students’ educational under-performance have been laid bare. Students rated as “economically disadvantaged” passed reading, writing, math, history and science at rates in the 20% to 32% range — far lower than the rate for economically disadvantaged children in most other schools. Richmond school officials blame racial bias and under-funding. But the real racism is that poor kids are trapped in a failing because Virginia’s educational establishment does everything in its power to block escape hatches in the form of charter schools or tax-favored scholarships. Continue reading

Delay-and-Block for Pipelines… and Solar?

Last December the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, which blocks federal agencies from authorizing a pipeline crossing. Depending upon U.S. Supreme Court action, the ruling in the Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. U.S. Forest Service case could well doom the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which crosses the trail in order to connect Midwest shale gas with Southeastern markets.

Noah Sachs, an environmental law professor at the University of Richmond, asks a provocative question: “Did the Fourth Circuit really turn the Appalachian Trail into a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks all energy transport from the Midwest to the East Coast, as many energy industry analysts have suggested?”

In an essay in The American Prospect, Sachs argues that Cowpasture doesn’t preclude all crossings of the Appalachian Trail, so the “great wall” analogy may not be apt. But here’s a passage that I found profoundly disturbing:

The real significance of the Cowpasture case is that it uses the Appalachian Trail crossing as a legal hook to delay and block the pipeline and raise its costs. There’s nothing wrong with delay-and-block tactics. It’s a strategy that environmentalists have been using since the 1960s. And as the climate crisis heats up, it’s a virtuous one.

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Dominion Protecting Renewable Energy Buyers?!

Dominion Energy Virginia is simply trying to protect the unsuspecting public from environmental fraudsters, you understand.  Companies like Costco Wholesale and The Kroger Company lack the energy expertise to decide for themselves if a competitive service provider really is providing 100 percent renewable energy. They are being denied that service by Dominion for their own good.

That’s the basic argument Dominion has advanced for its refusal to allow willing customers of Direct Energy Business or Calpine Energy Solutions to switch.  It has said so in briefs filed at the State Corporation Commission and repeated it during hearings on the two companies’ efforts to force Dominion to accept the various applications for competitive supply.  Continue reading

Bacon Bits: The Rules, California is Crazy, Rider E

The message is clear, the messenger not on this flyer attacking Emmett Hanger during the primary. There was a logo on the other side, but no disclaimer. Click for larger view.

This is the simple stuff, people.  Delegate Nick Freitas doesn’t seem to be the only person in the Republican camp complaining that the rules are a problem, at least when enforced.  A conservative activist group that went after state Senator Emmett Hanger in the June primary is now screaming “bloody murder” because Hanger filed a complaint with the Board of Elections over some handouts that lacked the state’s required disclaimer statements.  It is a simple rule we’ve all worked with for decades, and the penalty is a civil fine that might get up to $2,500, but probably won’t go near that high.  Yet here is the heated rhetoric being spouted, with a heavy push for funds: “This is nothing less than an elected official attempting to squash free speech and shut down our grassroots PAC. We will fight this effort for it endangers all voters of Virginia for the benefit of the political class.”  No, it’s just the rules. You already have a formal PAC, so you know about the rules.  By filing a complaint Hanger gave you the spotlight again for ten seconds, but that was his choice. 

Organic Carbon Capture Device

If you thought $20 for an LED bulb is nuts…Sarah Vogelsong over at Virginia Mercury (we shared a row at an SCC hearing Wednesday) has this story about how forest conservation groups in Virginia are being paid for the CO2 being absorbed by their trees.  Pay a carbon credit to a Virginia conservation group and your plant can pump out more carbon in the LA basin!  Without doubt 1) Californians can be talked into anything, simply anything, with the right green pitch, 2) this is truly a religion with Virginia reaping the indulgence payments for forgiveness of sins and 3) these people are not really serious about removing CO2 from the atmosphere if they think this does any good.  Continue reading

Saving the Planet Sometime Soon After Never

$20 a pop to give our neighbors one of these, buried on our electric bill.

What feeds persistent skepticism about those highly touted energy efficiency programs that we utility ratepayers get billed for? The actual reports on their costs and outcomes do not help.

Case in point: A quarterly report from Dominion Energy Virginia about its on-going efforts to reduce energy usage for low income or elderly residential customers. The utility spent more than $450 per household, a total of more than $713,000 to go into 1,568 homes, mostly apartments.  Continue reading