Modernized and Resilient Grid
In July 2018, Homeland Security described Russian hacking of U.S. utilities’ control rooms, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The WSJ’s sub-headline read “Blackouts could have been caused after the networks of trusted vendors were easily penetrated”. Reacting to the news story, James Bacon asked “The obvious question for Virginians …: What can state legislators and regulators do… if anything?” He opined that “… public involvement would helpful in some areas. What grid configuration would be the most secure?” After briefly contrasting a centralized versus a distributed grid, Mr. Bacon concluded: “The answers to such questions would shape the kind of electric grid that will best serve the interests of all Virginians.” At the same time, in another post, Mr. Bacon gave highlights of Virginia’s largest utility’s 10-year grid modernization plan. He concluded: “The State Corporation Commission has been skeptical of some of these investments in the past, but the Grid Modernization Act declares them to be in the public interest. It’s not clear exactly how that assertion of General Assembly priorities will play out in the SCC decision-making process. The next few months should tell the tale.” Virginia should ensure that any grid modernization proposed and considered is consistent with Virginia’ Energy Plan and with the approval of the proposed VEMA. This July 2018 Solar Power World piece reports that Dominion Energy Virginia’s grid transformation plans include 3,000 MW of new solar and wind. Questions that Virginia’s Energy Plan needs to answer include: Why 3,000 MW? Is that enough? Why not more? Is the timetable reasonable? What are the costs and benefits of more or less than Dominion proposes in the timeframe presented? Is this amount of renewable energy sufficient to meet our many energy needs? Should this much be utility-owned or are there better/other approaches? There are many more. If the Energy Plan set forth requirements, then Dominion’s ideas can be considered in light of those requirements.
A July 2018 Utility Dive article reports on differing views as to just how seriously we should take the threats from cyber-attacks.
In an August 2018 article, APNews reported on an interview with FBI officials in New Orleans titled FBI eyes plethora of river-related threats. Among the threats that concern the FBI are those related to energy. The article quoted the Special Agent interviewee as follows: “A cyber disruption of security systems that protect pipelines and refineries ‘could essentially cripple the oil and gas industry until we could get that system up and running again….’ The author identified several crucial areas vulnerable to cyber-security threats—including pipelines and drinking water sources—describing them as “All computer-reliant and tied in some way to the internet. All of them vulnerable to cyber thieves, hackers and terrorists.” Virginia does not necessarily have all the vulnerable infrastructure described in this article, but it has many vulnerabilities nonetheless. Pertinent questions exist around Virginia’s preparedness for such attacks and, more specifically, how should its Energy Plan and its energy management address the responsibilities for dealing with them. To what extent does Virginia ensure that these vulnerabilities are identified and their risks reduced? The 21st Energy Plan and VEMA must do so.
Grid security from hacking is but one concern. There is a strong case to be made that a less centralized grid will be less vulnerable to attack—from physical threats and severe weather events. In its July 2018 three-part blog series (referenced previously), RMI provided detailed guidance for and examples of planning for a more distributed grid. Also in July 2018, Solar Power World’s article describing elements of Dominion Energy’s 10-year grid modernization plan includes the following with respect to grid security:
“New construction and material standards will improve grid resiliency and reduce outages caused by weather and other events. Additional measures will be taken to protect the grid against the growing threat of both physical and cyber-attacks. These measures include hardening substations serving critical facilities and the deployment of new intelligent devices and control systems which help energy companies detect and recover from events more quickly.”
Leaving aside the disturbing questions about Dominion’s use of overcharges to fund some of its grid modernization plan, it appears that Virginia’s largest utility recognizes the need to beef up security. As noted previously, Virginia should be actively ensuring that all of Virginia’s utilities are taking similar steps, not just the largest. Virginia has too many smaller utilities serving too many customers to do otherwise.
In his July 23, 2018 op-ed (referenced previously), Aaron Sutch offered this insight:
“At the flip of a switch, the complex system known as the ‘electric grid’ delivers the electricity we depend on to power our lives. Yet our current electric grid has changed very little since the 1930s. It’s vulnerable, outdated, and leaves consumers out of important decisions affecting their energy choices. We need an electric grid that addresses the energy challenges we face and provides consumers the choices they demand.”
A resilient grid is one that is safe from destruction, regardless of the cause of that destruction.
The transportation sector is a huge contributor to Virginia’s overuse of fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are one way to lower that use. As indicated in this article from ILSR, here are 3 important areas for consideration:
This report from the National Defense Resources Council (NDRC) offers concrete, implementable suggestions on how to put the advantages of clean transportation to work for Virginia. And this article from the Augusta Free Press illustrates just how pervasive EVs are in the United Kingdom, China, Europe and even the U.S. As the article points out,
“With the sale of all new diesel and petrol vehicles banned by 2040 (in the UK), it seems that the replacement of standard motors with electric alternatives is now definitive. The issue of global warming and harmful pollutants has left the call for a greener choice heard loud and clear….
But 2040 is still a long way off – so many are making the switch to electric cars sooner rather than later…. It’s thought that by 2025, every sixth car sold in the world will be electric, as more people will be seeking a greener way of travelling.”
There is no reason to believe that the U.S. will not establish a similar ban on new diesel and gasoline vehicles (though admittedly not under the current Administration!) or that Virginia will not experience a significant rise in the number of EVs on its roads as well, with major implications for transportation planning and management (e.g., revenue, road usage and maintenance, public transport). As an example, since 2012 I have purchased two new vehicles—a hybrid and an EV. I use one or the other for the vast majority of my travel. Although I have worked to reduce my travel miles, I live in a rural area without public transportation or commuter rail service, 15 miles from the nearest small city. The result is that I drive Virginia’s roads without paying for that ability in the same way that owners of gas-powered vehicles do. While I may be in the minority in 2018, I foresee that my experience will not be the exception as soon as 2025. Virginia needs to be ready when more people choose to do what I’ve done.
Virginia has much to consider as it decides how to shift its focus away from its many polluting vehicles and toward those powered by clean energy. Not the least is the current tax structure that favors more, rather than less, reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, Virginia needs to seriously evaluate its public transportation system, as well as consider ways to move people using bicycles, shared rides, commuter rail, and other mechanisms. While these areas are the purview of agencies outside of the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME), DMME nonetheless needs to recognize the need for vision and change and make recommendations accordingly. Using the Volkswagen settlement money for electric charging stations is a great idea, but so much more planning and action are necessary. For example, ILSR offers this discussion on future sources of “fuel switching” dollars.
Greenhouse Gas Reductions
Despite its limitations, I am supportive of Virginia’s joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), as indicated in my submitted comments in July 2017 and March 2018 (part of the public record but not published online). VEMA should be part of, and approve, Virginia’s participation. Virginia’s greenhouse problem extends beyond its carbon emissions. In August 2018, Climate Home published “The US’ hidden methane problem”, subtitled “Unregulated, unnoticed coal mines across the US are leaking a potent greenhouse gas with the same greenhouse effect as 13 million cars”. Although coal mines in other states appear to leak/emit methane in volumes larger than Virginia’s, Virginia needs to focus on its operating and abandoned mines because of the likelihood that they are contributing to Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The article says the following about Virginia:
“The owner of the third-highest emitting coal mine, ERP Compliant Fuels, is part of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund network, a nonprofit group that claims to be operating coal mines in order to reclaim them.
Even as US coal production has plummeted over the past decade, and the number of active mines halved, coal mine methane emissions fell at a much slower pace, EPA data published in April shows. This indicates mines are not being fully sealed as they shut down.”
Virginia’s methane problem is largely not widely recognized or understood. If it were, Virginia would not be allowing its largest utility to proceed with proposed new natural gas pipelines. However, even if those pipelines are ultimately not built, Virginia still needs to address the methane that its industries (current and former) produce. RGGI could be one way to do that, although as drafted the proposed regulations do not include methane and the other RGGI states do not either.
It’s conceivable that Virginia could embrace a broader approach to greenhouse gas reduction. This August 2018 Grist article discusses Alaska’s consideration of a carbon tax:
“When carbon taxes keep getting scrapped by blue states like Washington and Oregon, why would such a plan succeed in Alaska: a red state where oil companies are a major economic lifeline?
Necessity is one explanation. Alaskans have been at the forefront of climate change for decades now, facing melting permafrost, coastal erosion, and rising seas. And dealing with these problems — building new infrastructure and relocating communities, for instance — is expensive. By 2030, climate change could add another $3 to $6 billion in costs to public infrastructure alone. A carbon tax could help pay for the state’s ballooning climate costs.”
Although Virginia does not have a large Native American population heavily dependent on the oceans for their livelihoods, it does have a long coastline with millions of residents at risk from rising sea levels and a sea floor that is uplifting. Virginia faces a huge population shift within this century. It needs to be preparing for the implications—demographic and economic among others.
Environmental and Health Impacts of Energy Production, Operations, and Distribution
As noted earlier, utilities should be held accountable for hazards such as coal ash. Virginia has coal ash problems of its own with concomitant adverse risks to health, soil, water, and air. These February 2016 and April 2016 articles in the Richmond Times Dispatch discusses the efforts made by numerous private groups to try to stop coal ash pond discharge into the James River—an action allowed by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). A November 2017 report from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) includes the following:
“Recycling coal ash in Virginia would not only prove a safer remedy for unlined, leaking coal ash pits, but it would also be an economically sound decision for the Commonwealth,” said Senior Attorney Greg Buppert. “We have the opportunity to make a good decision now about how to handle coal ash—recycling the ash for use in concrete cleans up a big problem, creates a useful and marketable product, and puts people to work. Dominion’s alternative to cap the ponds in place isn’t a long-term solution because, sooner or later, these sites will leak. It’s not realistic that millions of tons of toxic coal ash can be left on riverbanks, in many cases saturated by groundwater, without problems developing.”
As this May 2018 Village News article suggests, recycling coal ash residue could take years and continuing to store it poses great risks. A July 2018 article reports that “North Carolina consumers could see $5B coal-ash cleanup bill”. Holding utilities accountable for irresponsible activities should not include a ratepayer-subsidized “bailout”. Regardless, Virginia’s utilities must come up with a solution for the problems their operations created and Virginia needs to ensure they do so. And Virginians should not have to be “fighting” with its own DEQ to ensure its waters, land, and air are safe from coal production residue. The four articles listed below from the Richmond Times Dispatch illustrate that Virginians have had to do just that and Virginia’s largest utility and its legislature have not, after too many years, yet come up with viable solutions.
The last article refers to passage of SB 807, signed by the Governor in March 2018, halting further disposal through July 2019 while the Virginia utility that created the coal ash problem does yet another study.
The fact that the EPA has just decided to relax coal ash regulations (so perhaps the terrible consequences that Virginia’s coal ash ponds might now be “legal”) argues loudly for Virginia’s stepping up sooner rather than later to ensure we don’t worsen our problems.
In a 4th comment, I offer conclusions and recommendations.