Category Archives: Environment

Chesapeake Bay Foundation State of the Bay: The Bay is Regressing

School daze. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation(CBF) recently issued it biannual State of the Bay Report.  The report can be found here.  The CBF assigns both a numeric and letter grade to the bay.  This report (2017 – 2018) garners a score of 33 for a grade of D+.  The last report (2015 – 2016) tallied a 34 / C-.  The grading scale is as follows

40 or below – dangerously out of balance
41 – 50 – improving
51 – 70 – stable
71+ – saved

The first State of the Bay Report was issued in 1998 and Bhe bay received a “grade” of 27.  Progress was slow but steady through 2016.  The recently issued report (2018) represents a rare regression in overall score since the report was started.

Rain, rain, go away.  An extremely wet 2018 is primarily to blame for the regression in the bay’s health.  And wet it was.  DC’s official recording site at Reagan National Airport ended up with 66.28″ of rain, which broke the previous record of 61.33″ from 1889. This total is over 2 feet above DC’s annual average of 39.74″, and is nearly as much rain as the previous 2 years combined of 67.3″ (2016 + 2017).  Baltimore’s BWI Airport recorded 71.82″ of rain against an annual average of 43.62″.  That was the wettest year on record and the weather book dates back to 1871.  The runoff from all that rain caused significant regressions in nitrogen (-5), phosphorus (-9) and water clarity (-4) from the prior report.  One ray of sunshine in the report was the fact that underwater grasses notched a small gain from 2015-2016 despite the deluges. Continue reading

Hey, Let’s Ban New Fossil Fuel Projects

Sam Rasoul

This is what you get when the General Assembly usurps the State Corporation Commission and starts dictating energy policy. HB1635 by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, would impose a moratorium on “any new electric generating facility that generates fossil fuel energy through the combustion of any fossil fuel resources,” along with any fossil-fuel pipeline or export facility. The bill has been approved by the Committee on Commerce and Labor and is being considered by the full House.

Rasoul seems to be under the impression that it is possible for Virginia to transition to a 100% clean energy economy — in other words, one dominated by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and (a trivial contributor in Virginia) hydro. I don’t know what he thinks about nuclear, but if he agrees with the Sierra Club, he’s against that, too. The problem, as every reader of Bacon’s Rebellion knows, is that wind and solar are not dispatchable — that is, electric utilities cannot turn them on and off to meet fluctuations in demand. Continue reading

A Third Way for Coal Ash Disposal

EnCAP-IT schematic shows how coal ash can be stored on-site above ground level in synthetically lined cells, or bunkers. Source: “Macroencapsulation: Obtaining on-site clean closure,” Geosynthetics magazine.

By Dominion Energy’s most recent estimate, it will cost between $2.77 billion and $3.36 billion to recycle the utility’s 30 million tons of coal ash or bury it in synthetically lined landfills — as much as $2 billion more than burying it in place. Environmental groups say the risk is justified to offset the risk that toxic levels of heavy metals might leak into nearby rivers and streams.

But what if it were possible to reduce the environmental risks while also slashing the cost to rate payers? Shouldn’t the General Assembly be considering that option?

John Swenson, founder and managing partner of Henrico-based EnCAP-IT Solutions of VA, has developed 12 patents around a coal-ash disposal process he calls macroencapsulation, which combines the cost-efficiency of cap in place with the risk reduction of removal to landfills. He’s frustrated because he can’t get either Dominion Energy or environmental groups to consider his approach. Now a compromise solution backed by Governor Ralph Northam effectively removes the option from consideration.

Continue reading

Rage, Ruin, And You Pay The Bill In Full

I hear hurricanes a blowin’
And I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowing
I hear the voice for rage and ruin

Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

The acronym we all must learn for the 2019 General Assembly session is “CCR,” but it doesn’t stand for Credence Clearwater Revival.  Coal combustion residuals – coal ash – are the environmental poster child of the moment, with the apocalyptic vision a hurricane or other event flooding the material into rivers.  John Fogerty, the prophet.

Legislation dealing with the issue will probably get good coverage in the standard news media, and Senator Scott Surovell’s Senate Bill 1533 may get through to Governor Ralph Northam for signature.  What is not mentioned in his or the other CCR bills, and not being reported, is who will pay for this process if the General Assembly orders the ash moved or recycled or both.

Continue reading

Dominion Withdraws Renewable Tariff Effort

In the wake of the State Corporation Commission’s recent approval of a renewable energy tariff for residential customers of Appalachian Power Company, Dominion Energy Virginia has given up the application for its own more expensive proposal for a similar service to its residential and smaller business customers.

Continue reading

The Compressor Station: Another Fact-Poor Debate

THis map shows the location of ACP’s proposed air compressor station in relation to houses in the Union Hill community. Source: Southern Environmental Law Center.

The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4 to 0 last night to approve a controversial natural gas compressor station in Buckingham County that is crucial for the operation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Pipeline foes had argued that emissions from the compressor station would create a health hazard for nearby residents, a majority of whom, depending upon what mapping criteria are used, are African-American. This disproportionate impact upon a minority community, many contended, amounts to environmental racism.

But Dominion Energy and state regulators countered that the compressor station will be the cleanest in Virginia, emitting 50% to 80% less air pollution than any other gas compressor station in Virginia. “The bottom line here is the Buckingham Compression Station will be the most stringently regulated compressor station in the country and the public’s health will be protected,” said Michael Dowd, director of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Division, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As happens so often in such debates, there was no meaningful discussion of the level of risk associated with the project. Regardless of how tightly regulated the station is, how much pollution will it emit? And what health hazards are associated with that level of pollution — are they real or imagined? Numbers may exist deep in the bowels of the DEQ, but they have not surfaced in the public debate. Continue reading

At Last, a Green Tariff for APCo Customers

Western Virginians paying APCo’s renewable energy tariff will receive electricity from, among other sources, the Beech Ridge wind farm in West Virginia.

The State Corporation Commission has approved a proposal allowing Appalachian Power Company (APCo) customers to purchase electricity generated 100% from renewable energy. An average residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity would pay a premium of $4.25 a month.

The Commission had rejected two previous APCo proposals for a 100% renewable energy tariff. In an order issued Monday, however, the Commission found that under the latest iteration of the plan (1) the participating customer is receiving 100% renewable energy, (2) the tariff includes safeguards that do not offload costs to customers who do not participate, and (3) the rate is reasonable for the purposes of the renewable energy product being supplied. Continue reading

Coal Ash: How Much Risk Mitigation Does $5.7 Billion Buy?

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Ralph Northam has indicated his support for digging up 27 million cubic yards of coal ash, recycling some of it, and disposing of the rest in lined landfills far from Virginia’s rivers and streams. The cost has been estimated at $5.7 billion, adding an average $3.30 per month to the average household’s electric bill over 20 years.

“If not disposed of properly, coal ash can ruin water quality and create environmental disasters,” Northam said at a news conference yesterday, citing a 2014 coal ash spill in North Carolina. “We cannot have a repeat of that here in Virginia.” So reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

If Northam really said that, I shudder for the future of the commonwealth. There is so much misunderstanding packed into such a brief statement. Continue reading

Following the Dark Money: Bloomberg to NYU to Virginia’s OAG?

Mark Herring (far right) at 2016 launch of AGs United for Clean Power Plan.

Here is a counter-factual mental exercise for you. Imagine that former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative skeptic of climate change, had applied for a grant from the conservative-libertarian Koch Foundation to cover the cost of hiring an AG staff member dedicated to litigating environmental groups. Then imagine that Cuccinelli’s office had to compete nationally with other AG offices around the country for the grant, that the Koch Foundation would fund only those projects that best advanced its anti-climate change agenda, and, if approved, that the Koch Foundation would help select the attorney.

Would that have been a news story? Would the Washington Post and every other Virginia newspaper have given it front-page scandal coverage? Would Democrats and environmental groups decry the use of private dollars to hire lawyers to wield the legal powers of the AG’s office to harass and intimidate Koch brothers enemies?

Now flip the scenario. In the real world, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office submitted an application on Sept. 15, 2017, to the New York University School of Law’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center for funding to hire a NYU School of Law fellow “as a Special Assistant Attorney General” devoted to climate-change issues. The Virginia AG’s office, stated the application, “would work with the State Impact Center to identify, recruit and extend offers to appropriate candidates.” The Center is backed by billionaire, former New York Mayor, and anti-global warming champion Michael Bloomberg. Continue reading

Hey, Lowell, Check Out This New Global Warming Post!

Source: Dominion Energy 2018 Integrated Resource Plan

One of my goals in life is to drive Lowell Feld insane. From what I call tell, my insidious plan is working.

Lowell, the hyperbolic publisher of the left-wing Blue Virginia blog, deems me a “climate denier” and an all-around right-wing whack job. A few days ago, he included several of my Bacon’s Rebellion posts in his list of “18 of the Craziest Right-Wing Political Posts of 2018.” His main form of argumentation is taking quotes stripped of context and supporting fact, and dialing up the invective. One piece, he described as “completely baseless” and “crap,” another as “conspiracy theory lunacy,” and another as “a litany … of nonsensical right-wing tropes.” You get the idea.

Given his proclivity for substituting insults for facts and reason, Lowell seems to be losing it. I’m hoping that one more push — this post — will reduce him to gibbering madness. Continue reading

Fools Rush In: Coal Ash Scene Setter

Coal ash pond at Bremo Power Station. Photo credit: CBS 19

“I hate to give out directions without knowing what the cost is going to be.  There’s far too much of that in government.” 

That was Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach expressing his deep reservations about various proposals to deal with the 27 million cubic yards of coal ash that Dominion Energy Virginia has collected over decades near its major power plants.  Wagner, who chairs the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, was part of a joint subcommittee of that committee and its House counterpart that heard testimony  Monday but took no actions.

Legislation is coming.  Coal ash disposal in 2019 might turn into a replay of grid transformation in 2018, an omnibus electric utility regulation bill that takes on epic and expensive proportions as it moves through the legislative process.  It will also be a textbook example of what happens when legislators jump in to make billion-dollar decisions that could be made a better way.

Continue reading

Let’s Keep All the Big Boys Honest

Clean Virginia, the anti-Dominion group dedicated to “fighting monopoly utility corruption,” released a study Monday asserting that Virginians pay excess rates of $254 a year on average due to poor state oversight. That study was duly picked up by the Washington Post, which duly repeated its findings (along with Dominion’s rebuttal).

As far as I’m concerned, as a regulated monopoly, Dominion deserves the public scrutiny it gets. Dominion Energy is a publicly traded company, and its fiduciary responsibility is to maximize profits for shareholders. Its interests are not the same as those of ratepayers or the general public. But Dominion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The company does business within the context of a larger political system — a political system in which the environmental movement constitutes an increasingly powerful force. Continue reading

Green Virtue, Certified By The Hour

Is it enough to be green and virtuous on a month by month basis, or must one be green and virtuous every hour of every day?

That is a facetious version of a real question facing the State Corporation Commission as it considers the most recent effort by Dominion Energy Virginia to create a 100-percent renewable energy tariff for its residential and smaller commercial customers. A hearing examiner who has looked at the year-old case recommended last week that monthly virtue will be enough.

This is a case that pits consumer choice against a utility’s monopoly, and a small window for choice may close if this new voluntary tariff is approved. 

Continue reading

Dominion Energy: No More Mister Nice Guy

Dominion Energy executives are furious about the way environmental groups have portrayed State Corporation Commission’s recent rejection of the utility’s Integrated Resource Plan as a blow to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion describes recent comments by spokespersons for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter as deliberate “deception” and “lies.”

While they often express frustration with environmentalist foes in off-the-record conversations, Dominion government- and public-relations executives stick to carefully scripted remarks in public statements and steer clear of personal attacks. But after numerous false statements by pipeline foes over the past few weeks, said Thomas Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulatory affairs, the gloves are off. Continue reading

Dominion Grid Plan Battered in Testimony

Caroline Golin, Ph.D., witness for Appalachian Voices, SELC

Two witnesses told the State Corporation Commission Tuesday that Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed grid transformation program will not bring the utility’s customers into the modern energy economy.

Both Scott Norwood of Texas, an expert witness often used by the Office of the Attorney General, and Caroline Golin, an expert from Georgia hired by environmental groups, paralleled their written testimony reported on in an earlier post.

The commission must agree that the company’s $917 million first phase of its plan, which includes a roll out of new automated metering technology, is reasonable and prudent before the company can proceed. Just how customers will pay for this – either through a rate adjustment clause or the use of excess profits retained by the company – is not yet before the commission. With financing costs and profits the long-term revenue requirement for all phases of the plan is estimated at $6 billion by the SCC staff.

“The company is not proposing to operate the grid in any new way,” Golin said Tuesday. If it were moving aggressively to distributed energy, to more customer-driven demand management, to time-of-day pricing, to use of storage, “then I would agree they need more control of the grid. But right now, they are not proposing any of those.”

Norwood noted that a major part of the plan’s cost will be spent to reduce average outages by a few minutes per year. “I’m skeptical most customers will notice. It’s like the break we took at midmorning.” Benefits of that kind of reliability flow to larger, commercial and industrial customers but will be paid for by the residential customers.

Golin picked up on the same point: “There is a difference between reliable and perfect” and the company is now shooting for perfect. “This is something the commission needs to be very critical of. The average customer does not require perfect power.”

Support from some of the environmental groups, and a neutral stance taken by others, was crucial to passage of the 2018 legislation. Dominion Energy packaged it to the public it as a grid modernization effort, but its final version also included major incentives and directives to build more renewable generation. Now the environmental groups are leading the charge against the grid-related element of the bill, claiming it is a lost opportunity to truly transform the utility for a renewable energy future.

Golin, who has joined Google since being retained in this case, has been involved in grid redevelopment cases around the country and has also been especially critical of Duke Energy’s North Carolina plan.  Her statement that Dominion had no plans to operate the grid differently was vigorously challenged by Dominion and even an SCC staff witness later in the hearing.

Since the first round of written testimony was filed, Dominion’s leaders have supplemented the record with rebuttal testimony, but it was picked apart at the hearing as more evidence that no real cost-benefit analysis had been done, much of the engineering work is preliminary, cost estimates have little valid basis, and some obvious grid-related issues were flat ignored.

Dorothy Jaffe of the Sierra Club used questions to a Dominion witness to point out no real plans were made for the growth of electric vehicles, and the initial $3 billion plan would have to be supplemented – perhaps at additional cost – to support that expected transformation.

The Office of the Attorney General and the SCC staff have not asked for a total rejection of the proposal, but acceptance with conditions or acceptance of only the early pieces that involve planning and engineering. 

As with most of the issues that have reached the commission growing out of that legislation, the key question is does the regulatory body have the power to say no. In some cases, such as the off-shore wind demonstration project, the legislative wording was a clear directive. In the case of the grid projects, however, the new language mandated a review for reasonableness and prudence. A separate hearing on the commission’s authority was held November 7.

“The new law does not require a single one of these projects to be implemented,” said Nate Benforado, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who used his opening statement to dismiss the whole effort as “a plan to spend money” which “puts the customer last.”

“This is a huge issue for the coming decade,” Benforado said. Dominion really doesn’t need to build new generation. There is testimony in the current integrated resource plan case that demand is flat or dropping, with plenty of generation assets available through connection with other utilities. “Dominion is looking for ways to spend customer money and earn a rate of return.”

The decisions on this case and on the integrated resource plan will probably need to be viewed together to glimpse Virginia’s future. The IRP case appears ripe for a published opinion with no further hearings planned. The commission has until mid January to issue a decision on this matter.