Category Archives: Infrastructure

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 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.”

Continue reading

Staying Within the Debt Capacity

I am following up on an earlier post discussing the capital budget recommendations of the Governor and the Commonwealth’s debt capacity. Jim Bacon’s recent post discussing Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne’s worries about increasing debt also dealt with this general issue.

Guided by Secretary Layne, the Governor’s introduced budget was relatively conservative in its capital provisions and the authorization of $568.4 million in additional tax-supported debt. As predicted in the earlier post, the General Assembly came under a lot of pressure to add to the package and responded accordingly.  The final budget bill, signed by the Governor in early May, authorized the issuance of an additional $1.1 billion in state-supported debt.

The major projects added by the legislature were the replacement of Central State Hospital ($315 million), a top priority of the Governor; “renewal” of Alderman Library at UVa ($132.5 million); and demolition and replacement of Daniel Gym at Virginia State University ($82.9 million). Also included in the introduced and final total packages was $248 million, primarily for Virginia Tech, which was tied to the Amazon deal.  Including the authorizations provided by the 2018 General Assembly, the 2018-2020 Appropriation Act authorized the issuance of an additional $2.1 billion in tax-supported debt. Continue reading

Want More Affordable Housing? Try Free Markets.

More apartments needed… Affordable housing complex approved in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Exclusionary regulation at the local level is the root cause of unaffordable housing, and a rollback of exclusionary regulation is the best long-term solution, argue Salim Furth and Emily Hamilton, research fellows at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

“Contemporary American land use law embodies the bad idea that private land ought to be publicly planned. In practice, these plans routinely exclude low-income families by indirect means, causing income-based segregation,” they write in an attachment to April 2, 2019, testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services.

Exclusion is widespread: most jurisdictions, through zoning ordinances, ban apartments and manufactured homes in all but a few locations. Single-family homes are usually allowed, but only in specified areas and often on lots larger than many buyers want. As a consequence, those states that give the most power to planners and the least authority to property owners have abysmal housing growth rates. When wages rise in those states, rents and home prices soar.

Continue reading

Of Trash and Truckers

by Bill Tracy

Trouble, trouble, trouble.  We got trouble in River City.

“River City” in this case denotes certain municipalities in Northern Virginia, Georgia, and Colorado serviced for trash disposal by Manassas-based American Disposal Services (ADS). After years of exemplary service, ADS has seemingly lost the ability to pick up trash on a reliable basis. Fairfax County and Home Owners Associations are scrambling to review options to hold ADS accountable for its contractual obligations. My HOA has a temporary agreement with ADS to reduce trash pick-ups and change to a less demanding pick-up schedule.

ADS insists this is not their problem. Quoting Supervisor John Cook (Fairfax),  American blames a nationwide problem recruiting employees to drive its trucks. On a national level, the National Trucking Association reports, the U.S. was short approximately 48,000 truck drivers in 2015. An estimated 890,000 new hires will be needed over the next decade, with the potential for a shortage of 175,000 drivers in 2024 if the trend continues. Continue reading

Extreme Weather Event, Extreme Weather Event, Go Away…

Now, we’re told, we have a new reason to fear climate change: Record rainfalls are straining the capacity of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. In heavy rains, the antiquated systems, which combine stormwater runoff and wastewater, release untreated wastewater into the river.

“We’re on the frontlines dealing with climate change,” Grace LeRose, program manager for the Richmond public utilities, told The Virginia Mercury. “We’re seeing bigger and more frequent storms that are going to tax our system even more.”

In  May and June the city experienced 23 inches of rain, the highest ever recorded. That year, contends the Virginia Mercury, was indicative of a longer-term trend. There was a 33% increase in the number of heavy rainstorms in Virginia, and an 11% increase from the largest storms between 1948 and 2011.

Of course, you can make statistics say anything you want them to, so I thought I’d do some checking. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Highs and Lows

Digital gold rush. How lucrative are data centers for Loudoun County? The prosperous Northern Virginia county expects to collect $200 million in fiscal 2020 from the property tax on computer equipment, up 35% over 2019, according to the Washington Business Journal. Last week, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted a $3.2 billion operating budget that featured a “significant cut” to the real estate tax rate, an across-the-board pay raise for county employees, and $100 million more for county schools. Data centers are worth roughly $1,000 a year in lower taxes to Loudoun homeowners.

And at the other end of the fiscal spectrum…

Digging out. In the wake of the worst financial crisis suffered by any Virginia locality since the Great Depression, the City of Petersburg is building back its fund balance, The FY 2020 budget of $75.8 million will run a $2.6 million surplus this year and the city is budgeting for $3.6 million next year. The city still has a long way to go before reaching a fund balance of $18 million, healthy enough to fund the General Fund for three months, but it represents a dramatic improvement since FY 2016 when the fund balance collapsed to negative $7.7 million. Tax and utility payments remain high, but at least the city has a functioning government.

And in the “Them That Has Gets” department… Continue reading