Power Line: Questions to Ask Before Construction

Today is the last day for placing questions and comments before the Virginia State Corporation Commission (VSCC)  (comments) about two major issues from Dominion Virginia Power.

  1. Wise County coal-fired power plant (application, 14 page pdfPUE-2007-0066
  2. A 500 kV transmission line to bring coal electricity to Northern Virginia from Ohio (application, 29 page pdfPUE-2007-00033

Green Miles posted, yesterday, Help Stop the Wise County Coal Power Plant.  Excellent discussion. Highly recommended.

Thus, let’s turn to the Power Line question.  Quite simply, there has been no efficiency focus in the power line debate, with too much NIMBYite focus.  Public officials, before rushing forward with approval of Dominion’s proposal, should ask the questions that follow and consider potential responses.

QUESTION #1. Could investment by utilities and government (and individuals and the private sector) in regulations, incentives and building codes cut electrical requirements by efficiency while supporting economic and population growth?

The phrase “negawatts” refers to the concept of the value of investing in efficiency to cut electrical requirements. With systems designed for efficiency, we could reduce our per capita electrical needs by roughly 20 to 25 percent — at an average cost of less than 2 cents per kilowatt. Such investments would put off for a decade any requirement for new transmission lines.

Dominion Virginia Power has claimed, in a massive advertising campaign 7 FACTS about Dominon’s Northern Virginia Transmission Line, that

Fact 3: Energy conservation is important but it can’t replace the need for a new transmission line. Dominion has examined all viable alternatives. Even the best energy programs in place in the would not come close to reducing demand enough to fill the gap.

Over the past 30 years, California has had serious efforts at energy efficiency and has seen basically no growth in per capita electricity usage.  Virginia is above 60 percent growth in that same time period, per capita.  Does this not suggest some room (quite serious room) for the Commonwealth to exploit (rapidly) Negawatts cost-effectively to reduce its polluting footprint. 

This is a domain of some interest to me and, well, on the face of it, this “FACT” is simply false information no matter how might it sound in the gut. But, the VSCC Board should not simply trust my views. It should, however, demand an independent accounting to see the truth and validity of Dominion’s claims. Any examination by a real expert organization (such as the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) will highlight the lack of validity to Dominion’s public advertising claims.

QUESTION #2. In addition to saving energy, are there ways for the region to generate more of its own power through efficient local means and/or renewable power sources such as solar or urban wind projects?

Renewable-energy systems — such as solar water-heating — are already cost-effective. For government and many businesses, small solar and wind projects can save money by assuring continuity of operations during external power interruptions. Such projects could both foster a more efficient power structure and provide resilience against disasters that might interrupt power supplies. Making a concerted effort to develop such projects would reduce the need to devastate natural treasures to bring electricity from polluting coal plants.

Study after study show that Virginia has quite real wind resources for generating electricity.  Virginia could take a leadership position in developing 24/7/365 wind resources in mountainous areas by stopping mountain top removal (MTR) of coal, putting in wind mills, and using water storage on tops of hills to create combination hydro and wind power for reliable renewable power electricity delivery.

QUESTION # 3. Does the utility have any incentive to explore energy efficiency and distributed power generation rather than expanding the distribution system to facilitate greater use of electricity?

This is an issue that the Commission should highlight for the Governor. Sadly, in the Commonwealth, the utility rate structure rewards the utility for selling more kilowatt hours. Under current structuring, massive energy-efficiency projects would be money-losers. There are ways to address this — most notably through profit-decoupling, which provides paths for a utility to make money through “negawatts” just as it might through selling more kilowatts. And, well, Virginia’s neighbor (Maryland) has decided to adopt profit decoupling for this very reason.

Dominion Virginia Power has not been honest with its customers through the process.  The “7 FACTS About Dominion’s Northern Virginia Transmission Line” advertising could be called, instead, “Transmitting Truthiness rather than Truth”.  Let’s take a look at the the “7 FACTS”:

  1. “Need for additional electricity supplies is undeniable …”  Negwatts provides a path for denying that.
  2. “Dominion is working hard to find a route that minimizes the impact of a new line.”  Okay, quite probably true in NIMBYite terms.
  3. “Energy Conservation … can’t replace the need for a new transmission line.”  Again, negawatts …
  4. “Proposed transmission line is being built to ensure a relaible source of electric power for Northern Virginia.” Okay, again, something likely ‘true’ even within a truthiness message.
  5. “The new transmission line will improve access to low-cost power.” That is true, in the sense of ignoring the external costs of coal-fired electricity.  What happens when carbon fees are instituted or there is a cap-and-trade program. The ‘inexpensive’ won’t look so good any longer.
  6. “Adding enough new generation capacity in Northern Virginia is not feasible.”  Perhaps not in isolation from negawatts; but a combined energy efficiency, combined heat power (CHP) distributed energy generation program, and distributed renewable power could more than meet requirements at a far smaller carbon footprint with far greater reliability in disaster situations.
  7. “Without a new transmission line, the prospect of rolling blackouts by 2011 is very real.”  Without any actions on energy efficiency and without efforts to spark renewable power in Northern Virginia, then this scary statement might be true.  But, it is worthwhile to just this “fact” not in isolation from the potential “negawatt” power delivery.

The Commission owes it to the ratepayers and to the Commonwealth to delve deeply beyond Dominion’s claims to seek ground truth in reality rather than advertising’s truthiness.

There are tremendous opportunities, in the use of efficiency programs and the sensible pursuit of renewable energy, for Northern Virginia, the DC metropolitan area and the nation to reduce reliance on power sources that pollute.

We must not discount the potential to eliminate the need for the power lines through investment that would both reduce electricity demand (efficiency) and promote distributed power that provides resilience in the face of disaster.

These activities could help open the path to a sustainable and prosperous energy future.

All of this would protect the environment by reducing the demand to carve through parks to erect new power lines while reducing, as well, the Commonwealth’s and Washington area’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions.

There is a win-win solution out there that does not involve vistas of pylons in national parks.

Hopefully, the VSCC will spend some time looking for that better solution.


One response to “Power Line: Questions to Ask Before Construction

  1. Pingback: Dominion … the truthiness continues … « Energy Smart

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