Category Archives: Planning

If You Pay Full Price for Flood Insurance, Ask our City/County Manager Why

Roanoke flooding in 1985

by James C. Sherlock

There were lots of comments in my last post about government programs to mitigate flooding damage in flood plains, specifically about buying and tearing down houses that repeatedly flood.

One of the carrots to do so is Community Rating System (CRS) discounts to flood insurance in communities that take an active role in flood plain risk mitigation.

CRS is a part of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  It is an incentive program that recognizes and encourages community floodplain management activities that exceed the minimum program requirements.

When that happens, not only is the risk of flooding diminished, but flood insurance premium rates for all citizens of a community that accomplishes the goals are appropriately discounted to reflect the reduced flood risk.

To quote the program web page,

“For National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System participating communities, flood insurance premium rates are discounted in increments of 5 percent.

Continue reading

The ACP Wins One But The War Drags On

By Peter Galuszka

The $8.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline has won a significant legal victory but the war is far from over.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, has ruled in favor of project operated by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy saying that its 42-inch pipeline can cross under the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest.

The Court ruled that the pipeline can pass 600 feet underneath the trail and that the U.S. Forest Service has the right to allow a right of way. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled that the Forest Service had no such authority.

Dissenting, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that the U.S. Minerals Leasing Act does give the federal government the right to regulate federal land, including trails. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority ruling, said that plans to bury the pipeline under the Appalachian Trail represent an easement which is not the same as “land.”

The project still faces eight other permitting issues involving the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Continue reading

Why Do 58 Nursing Homes Lack PPE?

by Carol J. Bova

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) publishes COVID-19 data reported by nursing homes as of May 31. Only five Virginia facilities reported not having enough essential supplies for current use, but that still put the safety of 554 residents plus an unknown number of staff members at risk for COVID-19 or other infections.

Glenburnie Rehab and Manorcare–Imperial, both in Richmond, reported no current supplies of hand sanitizer, gloves, N-95 masks, surgical masks, eye protection or gowns.

Woodbine Rehabilitation in Alexandria reported no N-95 or surgical masks and no gowns.

Albemarle Health and Rehab in Charlottesville and The Springs Nursing Center in Hot Springs didn’t have any N-95 masks.

Looking ahead, CMS had also asked if nursing homes had a week’s supply of the five PPE items and hand sanitizer. Continue reading

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

More Bad News on Coronavirus

All I need is the air that I breathe. Recent research indicates that the coronavirus can live in air for 3 hours post aerosolization. The Hill reports that, “A study awaiting peer review from scientists at Princeton University, the University of California-Los Angeles and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted online Wednesday indicated that the COVID-19 virus could remain viable in the air up to 3 hours post aerosolization, while remaining alive on plastic and other surfaces for up to three days.” Previous media reports maintained that the Coronavirus required direct human contact in order to be transmitted. To be clear, this research has not been peer reviewed. However, public policy decisions would seem to be impacted if the Coronavirus can survive for hours suspended in air.

Overstaying your welcome. Researchers have evidence that people infected with the Coronavirus will remain infectious longer than previously believed. The Hill reports on a study by The Lancet, a British medical journal, indicating that people suffering from COVID-19 may be able to spread the disease for up to 37 days. If true, this finding calls into question the previously held expert opinion that recommended an isolation period of 14 days after infection.

Cancel culture. Cancellations of anything and almost everything continue to pile up. Examples include Ireland closing its schools and colleges, the NCAA Men’s National Basketball Tournament being held without fans in the audience, Italy closing almost all shops (other than grocery stores and pharmacies) and the NBA suspending its season starting today.

Implications for Virginia. Virginia’s response to the COVID-19 breakout remains sporadic at best. Continue reading

A Critical Coronavirus Graph

By DJ Rippert

OK, Boomer. A study conducted last month from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention provides statistics about the lethality of COVID-19.  Those statistics were analyzed by Business Insider.  You can see those statistics in the graph on the left. Younger people have a one in 10,000 (0.01%) chance of dying from the flu and a one in 500 (0.2%) chance of dying from COVID-19. So, COVID-19 is 20 times more lethal for a 15 year old than the flu. That mortality rate rises quickly as the victims get older. Between one and two 55 year olds out of 100 who contract COVID-19 will die of the disease. That’s 22 times the mortality rate of the flu. However, the real jump occurs in those who are 60 and above. Almost 15% of those aged 80+ will die if they contract the coronavirus.

Old Dominion. The average age of a Virginia resident is 38.1 years. There are 142,300 Virginians over the age of 80, 518,900 between 70 and 79 and 934,400 between 60 and 69. That’s 1,595,600 Virginians (19% of the population) with more than a 3.5% chance of dying if they develop COVID-19.

Hysteria? There is no vaccine against COVID-19. There is no cure. The only way for a 60+ year old Virginian to avoid a 3.6% – 14.8% chance of dying is to avoid the disease. The real odds of dying are the infection rate multiplied by the mortality rate. But once you contract the disease you are far more likely to die than if you contracted the flu. Is there any activity on Earth that a rational person would undertake with a 3.6% – 14.8% chance of dying? For comparison purposes an American sent to fight in Vietnam had about a 0.5% chance of dying. Given those odds, is it really “hysteria” to cancel fan participation at sporting events or to insist that people in contact with the public wear gloves? Our only defense is containment and containment comes with a fair amount of inconvenience. What is the alternative? Hope, as they say, is not a strategy.

Richmond’s World of Secrecy and Collusion

VCU President Michael Rao

by Peter Galuszka

There’s long been the “Virginia Way” of ruling oligarchs making decisions in backrooms while leaving the public out of the picture. But then there’s also the “Richmond Way,” which is the same thing on steroids.

The key focus today is the so-called Navy Hill District Corporation, a group headed by Dominion Energy chieftain Tom Farrell that wants to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum and build a $1.4 billion mixed-use project on 10 blocks just north of Broad Street downtown.

With Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney complicit, the group which involves some of the city’s biggest movers and shakers has worked mostly in secret and has gone to great lengths to keep the public as far away from planning as possible.

Richmond has had its share of flops when it gets into top-down, centralized economic planning somewhat reminiscent of Moscow, where I used to live and work. One was the 6th Street market, a failed project not far from Navy Hill. The city, which has a poverty rate of about 25%, is paying millions to the Washington Redskins, one of the richest firms in the National Football League, to train at a city facility for three weeks every summer.

Navy Hill also had an inauspicious start. When the city sent out requests for proposals for replacing the Coliseum a few years ago, it got exactly one proposal – from Farrell’s group.  Continue reading

Richmond and DC Among Cities People Are Most Eager to Ditch

by Don Rippert

Anywhere but here. Moneywise Publishing is citing a “study” detailing the most and least desirable American cities based on real estate inquiries. Real estate brokerage firm Redfin tracks Americans using their web site to find new places to live.  According to the company, 25% of people browsing home listings online are “looking to get outta town.” Tracking the places people want to leave isn’t very encouraging for Virginia. Both the Richmond metropolitan area and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are on the list of 19 top places to leave. Redfin also tracks the 10 places people most want to go. No Virginia city makes that list. Continue reading

On the Fine Art of Forecasting Peak Load Demand

Comparison of Dominion and PJM growth forecasts in peak load. Source: Dominion 2017 Integrated Resource Plan.

Billions of investment dollars ride on the long-range forecast of Dominion’s peak load electricity demand. But whose projections do we believe — Dominion’s or PJM’s?

In its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion Energy forecasts the increase in its peak electric load and anticipates what combination of new gas, solar and nuclear facilities it will take to meet that demand. Although the IRP is a highly technical document, against the backdrop of the debate over the future of Virginia’s electric grid, it has major political implications. Environmentalists argue that Dominion overstates future electric load and, consequently, it overestimates the number of new combustion turbines (gas-fired turbines designed to generate electricity on call) or the amount of new nuclear capacity that it will need to add.

As evidence, Dominion’s opponents point to the 2017 peak load forecast by PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part. Where Dominion’s IRP projects an average annual increase in summer peak load of 1.4%, PJM projects an increase of only 0.4%. Projected over the 15-year planning horizon of the IRP, that amounts to a tremendous difference in peak electric load, as can be seen in the graph above.

Needless to say, Dominion defends its forecast, and offers detailed reasoning in the IRP to support its position.

Which forecast is correct? That of Dominion, which has a more intimate, granular knowledge of its service territory, of that of PJM, which has no profit-maximizing agenda?

It might come as a surprise to outsiders, given the big gap between their projections, but Dominion and PJM coordinate their planning and forecasts very closely. In most ways, the two forecasts are closely aligned. In PJM’s estimation, the difference boils down to two main factors: (1) the assumptions that Dominion and PJM make about the growth in demand from energy-intensive data centers beyond 2021, and (2) assumptions about how to account for rapidly “behind-the-meter” electric generation by homeowners and businesses. To those two issues, Dominion adds two more arcane issues of methodology.

Data centers. Data centers figure largely in Dominion’s forecasts because Northern Virginia has emerged as one of the world’s leading clusters of energy-intensive server farms, drawing upon the region’s rich network of high-capacity fiber-optic cable, low-cost electricity, tech-savvy workforce, and friendly state-local policies. Having observed the success of Loudoun County, other Virginia localities from Virginia Beach to Wise County in far Southwest Virginia, are getting into the act.

Data centers are an anomaly for economic and electric-load forecasters. Because they are such big consumers of electricity to run thousands of servers and cool the heat they throw off, they skew the normal relationship between economic growth and energy consumption. Accordingly, Dominion and PJM have to make special adjustments to their economic models to take them into account.

“Each year Dominion comes to us with information about their projections of data center growth,” says Tom Falin, director of resource adequacy planning for PJM. “We do analysis to see if that growth is already embedded in our forecast. In general, it isn’t. [Data centers] put a drain on the energy grid that’s not normally associated with economic growth — there’s not a lot of employment and housing associated with it.”

Data-center loads reached more than 800 megawatts by 2016 and are projected to amount to 1,500 megawatts by 2021.  That compares to a total peak load of about 20,000 megawatts for Dominion. PJM estimated that it needs to adjust Dominion’s peak load forecast upward by 500 megawatts by 2021 to account for the data centers. At that point, says Falin, PJM assumes that the growth in energy demand will be embedded in the historical load history and won’t require further adjustment. “Perhaps Dominion is assuming stronger growth in these data centers than we are.”

Indeed it is. As Dominion explains in its 2017 IRP:

PJM has eliminated new data center growth in the DOM Zone beginning in 2021 – in other words, it excluded incremental data center growth beyond what is captured in historic trends. This is a significant change from PJM’s 2016 peak demand forecast, which included new data center growth continuing for the balance of the forecast. In comparison, the Company utilizes historical trend data center load coupled with interconnect data from new and existing data center customers to forecast data center growth within its service territory. Over the longer term, the Company relies on data center forecasts that are included in a 2015 study prepared for the Company by Quanta Technology, LLC, entitled “Dominion Northern Virginia Load Forecast.”

The difference between the Dominion and PJM forecasts can be seen in this graph taken from the 2017 IRP:

Source: Dominion 2017 IRP.

The dotted line shows what PJM’s peak demand forecast would look like if adjusted for data-center growth. Continue reading

Two More Signs that City of Richmond Is Kicking Donkey

Kicking donkey

The City of Richmond is on a tear. Not only is it seeing more real estate investment than it has it decades, the city is laying the groundwork for future growth and re-development. Its competitive advantage over neighboring suburban counties seems to get stronger with every passing day.

Word has leaked to local media of a privately led plans to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum as part of a larger initiative to revitalize a critical piece of the downtown district. A small working group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas Farrell and including Virginia Commonwealth University and the Altria Group has confirmed its desire to replace the decrepit Coliseum civic arena, which suffers from major deficiencies and drains $1.6 million a year from city coffers. Plans include a hotel to serve visitors to the nearby convention center, and encompass the historical Blues Armory building.

The working group, which is so preliminary that it does not yet have a name, is not ready to release details on the scope of the project, its cost or its financing.

Normally, when I hear of civic leaders talking up a big downtown redevelopment project, I immediately reach for my wallet. Most schemes call upon city governments to make major financial contributions, which are justified on the basis of fantasy projections of jobs, tax revenue, and spin-off investment. All too often these projects experience cost overruns, or projections fall short. (Just ask the City of Norfolk, which had its “donkey” handed to it for cost overruns of the Tide light rail project, and more recently, the Virginian-Pilot reports today, experienced a $16 million cost overrun on the $105 million Main hotel and conference center project downtown.)

But the larger point is that downtown Richmond excites the interest of the city’s major institutions and business leaders. There is something to work with. The Biotechnology Research Park has transformed the area to the north and east of the Coliseum. The neighboring Jackson Ward district to the west has been gentrified. Broad Street to the south is roaring back.  Developers are converting warehouses and obsolete office buildings into apartments and condos downtown. The Coliseum’s location is prime real estate, and it is under-utilized. Who knows, miracles do happen. Perhaps it will prove possible to re-develop the land around the Coliseum without massive subsidies.

A significant side benefit of a re-development project would be to improve connectivity downtown. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports: “The plan envisions a transformation of the traditional street grid, now partly sunken below grade in places and blocked entirely in others” to better connect the VCU health system, the government center around City Hall, and the biotechnology research park.

An impetus behind the initiative was the city’s commitment to build Bus Rapid Transit along Broad Street. The draft Pulse Corridor Plan calls for exploiting the “opportunity area” in the vicinity of the Coliseum. As it happens, the Pulse also will serve the Scotts Addition district, which the city is in the process of rezoning to maximize re-development opportunities.

The Pulse is expected to commence operations in October. One of its ten stops serves Scotts Addition, a light manufacturing district that has been transformed by the conversion of brick industrial buildings into apartments, condos, offices, restaurants, and breweries. City planners call for two new zoning districts: transit-oriented development (TOD) along the Broad Street corridor, and mixed-use for the rest of Scotts Addition.

The city’s planning staff calls the draft TOD-1 district “unabashedly urban,” reports the McGuireWoods land use team. The recommended ordinance is “intended to encourage redevelopment and place-making, including adaptive reuse of underutilized buildings, to create a high-quality urban realm.” Zoning would require walkable streetscapes and allow buildings of up to 12 stories in height. Most buildings would have a maximum setback of 10 feet. Parking requirements would be lifted for all uses other than hotels and large, multifamily residential buildings.

Beyond the Broad Street corridor, Scott’s Addition would be rezoned from light industrial to a mixed-use business district. Zoning would encourage “street-oriented commercial” corridors, requiring street-front retail as part of any residential use, and prohibiting car-oriented uses like gas stations and parking decks. Amendments would permit “maker” light manufacturing uses of under 10,000 square feet, which, if approved, could extend the ongoing boom in breweries, cideries and distilleries.

If both rezonings are approved, says the McGuireWoods land use team, “there may be significant opportunities for RVA’s commercial real estate community to actualize the city’s vision for denser, more urban development in this area.” 

The Pulse extends into Henrico County, terminating near the Willow Lawn mall. If county officials are planning to take advantage of the BRT service, there is no sign of it in my Google results. The only rezoning activity near Willow Lawn took place last year: approving a development and lighting plan for a Chick-fil-A.

One positive sign, however, is that Henrico has hired Clarion Associates to lead a comprehensive update of its zoning and subdivision ordinances — the first such effort in six decades. The revisions are expected to take two years, however, so even if the county commits to a vision of selective urbanization, the city of Richmond likely will continue to whup donkey.

Why Would Dominion Want a $19 Billion Nuclear Plant?

North Anna Power Station

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has indicated it will issue a license within the next few days to build a third nuclear reactor at Dominion Energy’s North Anna power station, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this week.

Dominion has spent $600 million so far on planning, engineering and developing the 1,450-megawatt facility, which has been widely reported to cost an estimated $19 billion. While acknowledging the huge up-front expense, Dominion has argued that it needs to keep open the option of a third nuclear unit in case federal and state regulators impose strict carbon controls on Virginia’s electric utilities.

Robert Zullo has done a fine job of covering Dominion for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and I rely upon his reporting to keep up with the energy and environmental issues the company is embroiled in. But I would not frame the North Anna 3 issue as he did:

Given the massive cost of the controversial project, which has been opposed by both consumer and environmental groups and has yet to be approved by the State Corporation Commission, it remains unclear whether the utility will actually build the reactor.

True, consumer and environmental groups do oppose the project, and, true, it is unclear whether the utility will build the reactor. But the driver isn’t the cost, which is horrendous. The driver is what kind of regulatory regime federal and state governments enact to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from Virginia power plants. If regulators choose a “mass-based” approach that caps CO2 emissions on existing power plants and all new generation units built in the future, Dominion argues, the only way to meet electricity demand, maintain federally mandated reliability standards and stay within the CO2 limits is to construct a new nuclear unit, which emits zero carbon.

Dominion is not advocating construction of North Anna 3. It is not recommending construction of North Anna 3. There is no indication that it even wants to build North Anna 3. Rather it is preserving the option should political and regulatory developments leave it no alternative.

The company lays out its logic in its 2017 Integrated Resource Report, a planning document that provides a 15-year look into the future. There is so much political and regulatory uncertainty that Dominion examines eight different scenarios predicated on different schemes for restricting CO2 emissions. Building North Anna 3 appears in only one of the eight options, which the IRP refers to as “Plan H.” Here’s how Dominion describes that plan:

Plan H is a Mass-Based program that limits the total CO2 emissions from both the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired generating units and all new generation units in the future, but also includes the construction and operation of North Anna 3 in 2030. This Alternative Plan was developed assuming that the Company achieves [Clean Power Plan] compliance through portfolio modifications with no market purchase of CO2 allowances. This Alternative Plan limits the generation of [the Mt. Storm coal-fired power station] to a 40% capacity factor.

Key assumptions include:

  • Retirement of up to four coal-fired units at the Mecklenburg and Clover power stations, totaling 577 megawatts, by 2025.
  • 3,360 megawatts of additional solar capacity;
  • 2,290 MW of additional natural-gas, Combustion Turbine capacity;
  • A 20-year extension of the four existing nuclear units at the North Anna and Surry power stations.
  • Addition of 1,452 of nuclear capacity at North Anna 3.

Dominion acknowledges that the compliance costs of Plan H would be extremely expensive — $14.79 billion over the IRP study period compared to $5.71 billion for the next most expensive alternative and $2.3 billion compared to the least expensive alternative.

The impact of Plan H on residential consumers would be considerable. Dominion estimates that average monthly electric rates for a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month would increase 29.44% by 2030 and subside to 19.01% higher by 2042. That would be more than five times the increase of the next most costly plan in 2030.

Source: Dominion Energy

A key assumption embedded in Dominion’s projections is that electricity demand will increase by an average of 1.5% annually over the next 15 years. The IRP forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 2.04% for the Virginia economy, based upon data supplied by Moody’s Analytics. Thus, a 1.5% load increase implies continued energy-efficiency gains that reduce the energy intensity of each unit of economic growth.

Virginia’s success in attracting energy-intensive data centers plays into the utility’s Virginia forecast. “The Company has seen significant interest in data centers locating in Virginia because of its proximity to fiber optic networks as well as low-cost, reliable power sources,” the IRP says. (See yesterday’s post, “Building on Virginia’s Data Center Boom.”)

Some observers argue that Dominion’s forecast overstates demand growth. Most notably, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part, provides a significantly lower growth forecast for the Dominion transmission zone, as seen here:

Source: Dominion Energy

The IRP addresses this forecast discrepancy at length. Dominion says four factors account for the gap in projected demand growth. First, PJM eliminated new data center growth from its forecast. Second, PJM makes assumptions about Distributed Energy Resources (primarily solar) that overestimate how they would perform during critical system conditions. Third, PJM bases its forecast of appliance saturation and efficiencies on Southeast regional data, while Dominion uses historical data from its own service territory. And fourth, Dominion uses a different methodology to account for public sector energy growth, which accounts for 13% of company sales.

Another unknown is the likelihood that a Plan H scenario will materialize.

The Trump administration has expressed a desire to scrap the Clean Power Plan. Even if it succeeds in neutering the CO2 regulations, though, a future administration could reinstate them. Meanwhile, the Virginia environmental lobby is pushing hard for the CO2 caps contemplated in Plan H, and the McAuliffe administration will announce its own plan later this month to combat CO2. Furthermore, several environmental groups have gone on the record in opposition to extending the life of the existing Surry and North Anna nuclear plants. Should Dominion fail to renew those licenses, it would have to make up nearly 3,400 megawatts of capacity elsewhere. Unable to add fossil fuel capacity under a Plan H scenario, it would be limited to renewables or nuclear. An all-renewables approach could create an unstable grid with major reliability issues. That would leave North Anna 3 as the only alternative.

Many possibilities might obviate the necessity of building North Anna 3 under a Plan H scenario. The electricity load might increase at a slower pace than Dominion forecasts. The utility might succeed in extending the life of its existing nuclear units. Battery storage technology might advance to the point where it is feasible store massive amounts of sunlight-generated energy. There is no way to know at this time what will happen. But as the entity responsible for keeping the lights on, now and far into the future, Dominion is taking no chances. Despite the jaw-breaking cost, it is not taking the North Anna 3 option off the table.

Building on Virginia’s Data-Center Boom

Data centers are the hottest trend in Virginia economic development these days. But the state is only beginning to think through the implications.

Loudoun County, home to 75 facilities, has developed the largest cluster of data centers in the country (and perhaps the world), and next-door-neighbor Prince William County is rising fast. Rural Mecklenburg County has attracted nearly $2 billion in investment as the location of Microsoft’s East Coast hub for online services. QTS has retrofitted an old microchip factory in Henrico County to open a data center, while DP Facilities, Inc., opened a $65 project center in Wise County. Soon, Virginia Beach will enter the data-center sweepstakes when construction is complete on a 4,000-mile transatlantic cable connecting Virginia to Europe.

According to Paula Squires writing in Virginia Business magazine, Virginia boasts more than 650 data processing, hosting and related establishments that employ more than 13,900 people. Since 2006, the industry has announced more than $11.8 million in new investment and 6,600 jobs. The jobs, while relatively few in number, pay well (more than $100,000 a year in Northern Virginia), and generate a gusher of local taxes.

Billions of dollars are flowing into the sector as the global economy embraces cloud computing to handle the massive surge in data collection and storage. A Markets and Markets research report estimates that the cloud storage market will grow from $23.76 billion in 2016 to $74.94 billion by 2021 — a compounded annual growth rate of 25.8%.

Loudoun County was one of the first localities anywhere to see the economic development potential. The county had a built-in advantage — a massive network of fiber-optic cable built by AOL and WorldCom during the heyday of the 1990s Internet bubble. WorldCom went bust and AOL has a much-diminished presence, but the cable infrastructure remained — and high-capacity connectivity is an essential prerequisite for a data center. Loudoun claims that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the county. The concentration of data centers is so pronounced that economic developers refers to a six-mile radius around Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway as “data center alley.”

The county has built on its infrastructure advantage by learning how to expedite zoning, permitting and construction. CyrusOne completed construction of a 220,000-square-foot data center in Sterling in 180 days — reputedly the shortest construction time fever for a center that size, reports Squires.

To incentivize investment, the state exempts computer equipment bought or leased for a data center from the retail sales and use tax. Henrico County has dropped its business property tax rate on computers and related equipment from $3.50 to $.40 per $100 of assessed value.

Also, Dominion Energy has emerged as a significant partner. The endless racks of servers inside data centers consume electricity and generate heat, which must be cooled by massive HVAC systems. Dominion charges 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour for large facilities, and a slightly higher rate for small ones. “We’re very competitive,” says Stan Blackwell, director of customer service and strategic partnerships for Dominion. “We have some of the lowest data-center rates in the nation.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The rise of the data-center industry raises two pointed sets of public policy questions.

First, how can Virginia optimize this opportunity? What are the critical drivers? Obviously, the existence of high-capacity fiber networks is one consideration. It appears from the map atop this post that Virginia has one of the densest clusters of long-haul fiber capacity in the country. How crucial is that advantage? Does Virginia’s proximity to a relatively fiber-poor Southeastern U.S. give data centers serving that market an edge? Is the competitive advantage bequeathed by fiber-optic infrastructure such that Virginia should consider encouraging investment in more? Conversely, does it do any good for Virginia to invest in its own fiber infrastructure if connections to neighboring states are lacking? Many, many questions.

Electricity is one of the largest costs associated with operating a data center, accounting for roughly 10% of the total cost of ownership — and it is one of the largest costs that vary by location. Dominion’s electric rates confer a significant competitive edge for locations within its service territory.

Graph credit: Dominion Energy

One of the biggest challenges for Dominion — and the further expansion of the data-center industry — is delivering electricity to these data centers. In one particularly controversial case, the utility wants to build a 230 kV transmission line and substation from Gainesville to Haymarket to serve an Amazon data center. Locals have organized in opposition, claiming that the 100-foot-tall towers will disrupt views and harm property values to benefit a single industrial customer. They insist that Dominion bury the line at considerable expense. If Virginia wants to develop the data-center industry more fully, it may need to find ways to resolve the inevitable utility-landowner disputes fairly expeditiously. No company wants to wait years to find out whether a project will get the electric power it needs.

A second big public policy question centers on the implications of the data-center boom for electricity demand in Virginia. According to Virginia Business, data centers represent Dominion’s fastest-growing customer segment: About 7% of the company’s retail portfolio consists of data centers.

This feeds into the debate over Dominion’s future electric generating mix. Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) assumes that electric load will increase at a compounded rate of 1.5% over the next 15 years — considerably higher than PJM Interconnection’s forecast for the Dominion service territory. Dominion argues that PJM has not taken into account the phenomenal growth of demand by Virginia-based data centers. These projections matter because they influence how much new generating capacity — including nuclear, as I will explore in a forthcoming post — Dominion adds in the years ahead, with tremendous implications for rate payer and the environment.

The data center surge could prove to be an economic development boon for Virginia. But the industry’s growth impacts local zoning and land-use practices, tax policy, fiber-optic infrastructure development, and energy policy. The McAuliffe administration would be well advised to pull together a conclave to determine how to sort through these issues.

Please, Norge, Don’t Go NIMBY on Solar Project

Norge residents gather to learn more about a proposed solar farm in their neighborhood. Photo credit: Virginia Gazette.

Report from today’s Virginia Gazette: Members of the Norge community of James City County are “concerned” that a proposed solar farm will impact their neighborhood negatively.

The James City County planning commission approved in April an application to build a solar farm on a 225-acre property on Farmville Lane. The developer, California-based SunPower, said that the lane would have to be widened and trees removed in order for trucks to be able to turn properly.

Residents expressed concerns about traffic and noise said Amanda Beringer, who organized a neighborhood meeting to educate neighbors. “As we did more research and watched the planning commission meeting we realized a lot of people didn’t know about the proposal.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, if someone proposed a major construction project near where I lived, I’d want to know more about it, too. So the Norge neighbors can’t be criticized for wanting to learn more about the project. But if concern morphs into opposition, I’ll have “concerns” of my own, but entirely different ones. I’ll be concerned how NIMBYs inevitably arise to block any kind of energy-related project in Virginia, be it electric transmission lines, gas pipelines, wind turbines or even solar farms that hum quietly behind hedges while — outside the construction phase — creating little traffic or human activity of any kind. Some energy projects are intrusive and resistance is understandable. But opposition to solar projects is incomprehensible to me.

Look, people, solar energy is coming. Dominion and Appalachian Power have both announced commitments to massive increases in solar generation over the next 25 years. While some of that solar capacity will be small-scale, distributed rooftop solar panels, most of it will be utility-scale solar farms like the one SunPower wants to build. Leasing land to a  power company is great news for suburban and exurban landowners struggling to make ends meet in farming, and the tax benefits to localities are significant — even after taking into account the 80% discount on property tax assessments.

Local governments across Virginia need to get proactive and update their zoning codes and comprehensive plans to prepare for the upcoming solar bonanza. They need to work out potentially conflicting issues ahead of time. The quicker solar projects sail through the regulatory process, the more that will get built to the benefit of all.