Category Archives: Infrastructure

Photo Project Spotlights Pipeline Impact


By Peter Galuszka

Veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who grew up in Norfolk, has a brilliant online project that shows the human and environmental impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

She is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit group that funded her project that centers mostly in rural Nelson and Buckingham Counties that would be dissected by the natural gas pipeline.

She combines spectacular aerial photos with deep close ups of people.

One of her subjects is Ella Rose, a retiree who lives in a small house in Union Hill. She was living a quiet happy life in her natural setting until she got a letter from Dominion Energy stating that they would be routing the ACP about 150-feet from her house.

Union Hill is a touchpoint for pipeline controversy since it is largely African-American community that ACP officials have selected for a compressor station. It is one of similar localities that seem to be targeted with other loud and disruptive equipment along the pipeline route. Continue reading

Is It the Death Knell For Dominion’s Pipeline?

By Peter Galuszka

For more than a decade, hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas and oil has transformed the American energy picture, leading to big revivals in such energy fields such as Marcellus in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the Bakken field in the Dakotas.

It has prompted Dominion Energy and its utility partners to push forward with an $8 billion or so Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will take Marcellus gas through Virginia all the way to South Carolina. The project, tied up in court fights, has been enormously divisive as property owners have protested the utilities’ strong arm methods of securing rights of way.

But now there’s clear evidence that the fracking boom is over, and that has huge implications for the ACL project. The reason? Oil and gas prices have dropped thanks to a perfect storm of issues. There’s the coronavirus pandemic tanking the U.S. economy, bitter energy wars between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the fact that fracking gas and oil rigs are enormously expensive and wells can produce for only a short period.

The Hill reported last week: “Oil sank to $23 (a barrel) from a high of $53 in mid-February, far below the break even point that producers need to drill new wells to maintain supply, and with volumes rapidly diminishing at existing wells.”

The newspaper points out that a fracking well can cost more than $10 million while a traditional well is only $2 million. As price pressure mounts, the number of wells nationally has plummeted from 790 to 772 in one week.  At the Bakken field, reports The Washington Post, producers are cutting costs.

The situation has clear implications for the ACL project which was conceived at the height of the Marcellus boom. Dominion claimed that the gas would be badly needed in coming years while others claimed there isn’t enough demand. Continue reading

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

Dominion, Apco Leverage Grid Investments to Promote Rural Broadband

Virginia broadband availability map. Source: Dominion Energy “Broadband Feasibility Report”

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., could become key players in the Northam administration’s push to extend broadband access to rural communities.

A State Corporation Commission ruling is expected today on an Apco proposal to extend “middle mile” broadband in partnership with Bluefield-based GigaBeam Networks, which will provide “last mile” connectivity to retail customers in Grayson County.

And last month, Dominion announced a partnership with Prince George Electric Cooperative’s RURALBAND subsidiary to provide Internet connectivity to 3,600 customers in Surry County. Dominion’s “middle-mile” service would link Prince George local network with high-capacity fiber-optic trunk lines.

The logic behind these partnerships is that, spurred by the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion and Apco are already spending tens of millions of dollars to install broadband in their electric distribution systems. They can add enough additional capacity to serve nearby rural communities at marginal additional cost. Continue reading

Let’s Build Some More!

Source: Debt Capacity Advisory Committee, 2019 Report

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

This report on the capital budget section of the budget bill is later than I had planned. There is so much going on with the General Assembly this year.  I was familiar with the term “like trying to drink from a fire hose.” Now, I know the experience.

Debt

Because the vast majority of capital projects are funded with tax-supported bond proceeds, any discussion of the capital budget proposals needs to start with the Commonwealth’s debt picture. (The source of the data on the debt is the latest annual report of the Debt Capacity Advisory Committee (DCAC). Anyone wanting a clearly written explanation and discussion of the Commonwealth’s debt status can find the report here.)

Outstanding tax-supported debt of the Commonwealth more than doubled over the last ten years, from $10.6 billion (FY 2010) to $21.7 billion (FY 2019). This total is comprised of debt issued for general construction and for transportation facilities, as well as pension and other post-employment benefits liabilities. Continue reading

Watch Out! Here Comes a Gas Tax Hike!

Shannon Valentine

by James A. Bacon

Bacon’s Rebellion predicted that the change of political power in the General Assembly from red to blue would bring a raft of proposals for tax increases and revenue enhancements.

Because the General Fund is expected to see healthy revenue growth in the next biennial budget, I speculated that the Northam administration and its legislative allies would be restrained in their quest for new money, most likely pushing for sources that were either too opaque to understand (such as changes to tax deductions in response to the federal tax law) or too fragmented and obscure for anyone to notice. But it looks like I was wrong (hardly for the first time). According to WTOP, Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine suggested yesterday that the state could raise gas taxes next year.

Without a change to increase the gas tax or some other transportation funding source, the administration projects a decline in funding for road construction and other projects. In a development that takes absolutely no one by surprise, it turns out that fuel-efficiency improvements in Virginia’s automobile fleet are cutting into gasoline tax revenues. Continue reading

The Cumberland Landfill: Another Case of Risk Illiteracy

by James A. Bacon

Last year the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for construction of a 500-acre mega-landfill. Some county residents welcome the facility, which would generate between $1.4 million and $2.8 million a year in host fees and provide a huge revenue boost to a county budget of roughly $15 million a year. But others oppose the project.

Irène Mathieu, a Charlottesville pediatrician, raises all sorts of phantasmagorical concerns in an op-ed today appearing in The Virginia Mercury. In her clinic, she says, she encounters children suffering from asthma or complications from premature births. “The scientific evidence tells us that air and water pollution are contributing factors to these children’s problems, and that the burden from pollution is disproportionately borne by children of color and those living in poverty.”

Threats to Cumberland County families and children — nearly one-third of whom are African-American, she points out — include groundwater contamination, dust, methane, and “dramatic surges in traffic.” The landfill, she adds, would close off a road in front of a historic African-American school, rendering community access nearly impossible. Further, she writes, “I worry about the self-worth of children who grown up with no access to their local history, the graves of their ancestors now a repository for trash.”

Wow! Where does one begin to dissect this kind of logic? Continue reading

Is Solar Permitting Stacked against the Little Guy?

by James A. Bacon

The Van Kesteren family, owner of  Van Kesteren Farms in Accomack County, wants to build solar panels on 180 acres as a way to supplement the income from its farming operations. But the price tag for connecting to the regional grid is posing a major barrier.

The estimate for connecting to the Eastern Shore electric grid has increased from $3-4 million in March 2017 to $26.5 million today, according to an article in Energy News Network. The article focuses mainly on the Van Kesteren family’s thwarted ambitions, as made clear by the sub-head: “An Eastern Shore farming family is frustrated that its solar project is at the mercy of the local utility and grid operator.”

But the story illustrates a broader story regarding a critical and often overlooked aspect of solar-power economics: how some proposed locations for solar farms can be rendered uncompetitive by high interconnection costs. 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

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.

Continue reading

Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense? Continue reading

The Microgrid Option

Microgrids would make it easier to integrate more rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources into the electric grid.

By Jane Twitmyer

Building a clean electric system takes more than switching from fossil fuels to renewables. To make good use of wind and solar power, Virginia needs a modern, flexible electric grid that can exploit and optimize the unique attributes those resources bring to bear. And it needs new rules — laws and regulations — that can allow such a system to develop.

A more flexible electric system will be built in part around microgrids. The Navigant consulting firm defines microgrids as networks incorporating a variety of distributed energy resources, such as wind and solar, that can be aggregated, can balance loads and generation with or without energy storage, and can function whether connected or not to a traditional utility power grid.

As distributed renewable energy resources replace large central generation plants — more rooftop solar, more community wind and solar — electricity generation becomes more localized. Localized generators, particularly photovoltaic solar, require less supporting infrastructure. For instance, local generation doesn’t require transmission lines to wheel electricity across long distances (leaking electricity in the process). And unlike natural gas, it doesn’t require pipelines to deliver fuel to the generating site. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Pipelines, Trucks, Express Lanes

Is natural gas supply a constraint to Roanoke’s growth? Without the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Roanoke Gas Co. says it will be unable to reliably meet future demand or serve all of its customers on the coldest days of the year. Writes Chairman John Williamson in a State Corporation Commission filing: “Southwest Virginia has more than enough constraints on economic growth without its premier MWA flat-lined due to a lack of reliable and affordable energy supply. … MVP is critical to that adequate energy supply.” MVP critics say that Roanoke Gas, which has a tangential financial stake in the pipeline, has an adequate supply from existing pipelines. But Roanoke Gas officials insist that when they asked about additional capacity from the interstate pipelines, they were told none was available. The Roanoke Times lays explores the controversy here.

Keep on trucking. The Port of Virginia has completed a $320 million expansion of its container-loading capacity. With four new giant cranes and other improvements, it can handle three ultra-large container ships simultaneously. Port capacity has increased from about 2.7 million containers yearly to 4.4. million. But the growth in freight traffic is creating a new pain point: delays and prolonged turn-around times for trucks, reports the Virginian-Pilot. Unmentioned in the article is what impact rising truck traffic — four to five thousand trips daily when the port reaches full capacity — on the region’s transportation network. 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 ambitions: “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