Category Archives: Environment

Where Goes PG&E, then Goes Dominion?

PG&E Corp., California’s largest electric utility, has filed for bankruptcy protection after incurring billions of dollars in liabilities and potential liabilities in wildfire damages. The California legislature, totally controlled by Democrats, is giving the utility no succor, reports the Wall Street Journal. Writes the Journal:

A company that was once one of the most influential in Sacramento and regularly got its way on legislation and regulation now has few defenders left. The reason, Sacramento veterans say, is that years of bad news related to deadly fires and other disasters have made the company unpopular among the public.

That sentiment now outweighs the goodwill PG&E had amassed from years of lobbying, donations and other close ties to key leaders, they say.

What brought about this turnabout? Decades of strict zoning in metropolitan areas pushed up housing prices to stratospheric levels, impelling hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Californians to seek housing in cheap land and housing in the boonies. PG&E was required as part of its mandate to serve the public to extend electric power lines to these scattered developments. Meanwhile, state policy overturned the previous practice of clear cutting and controlled burns in woodlands, resulting in the accumulation of a massive amount of fuel. Then nature intervened in the form of an extended drought. When power lines failed, as they periodically do, they sparked massive wildfires. Continue reading

The Coal Ash Deal: More Proof that Virginia Is Becoming New Jersey

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

A deal cooked up between Governor Ralph Northam and legislative leaders, with the support of environmental groups and the acquiescence of Dominion Energy, will require Dominion to excavate coal ash ponds at four of its power plants, recycle at least 6.8 million cubic yards, and move the rest to modern landfills. The requirement, according to the Washington Post, will add about $1 billion to the $1.7 billion cost of Dominion’s preferred approach. The cost to ratepayers is not to exceed $225 million a year (the Richmond Times-Dispatch figure) or $5 per month per typical retail customer (Washington Post).

What I find disturbing is the totally false premise upon which the legislation is based: that landfilling of coal ash is necessary because existing coal ash ponds are leaking heavy metals. This assertion, made endlessly over the past year, provides the justification for the legislation. If you want proof that Virginia politically is becoming New Jersey, now you’ve got it.

Here are just a few recent examples of misleading rhetoric:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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