This is how it works: a network of activists, politicians and their media enablers work public opinion into a furious boil about, for example, “global warming.”
They howl for changes in, say, electric power production, shaking the bogeyman of life-threatening changes to the environment. Then, when a major electricity producer makes moves to lower their devil’s- halitosis-level emissions, they find themselves attacked for recouping the costs.
Case in point is the Virginia Attorney General’s complaint against Dominion Energy’s attempt to pass the cost of upgrades at its Chesterfield County power plants on to consumers. Dominion opted to close two of the most shopworn units at the facility, which still burns coal to produce power. The remaining two were to have received upgrades to both lower emissions and to improve coal-ash storage, but now the projects are in doubt, because Dominion’s ability to pass the costs along is being challenged.
Scott Norwood, an “energy consultant” hired by the AG’s office for the pushback against Dominion, says that the company could have retired the units instead, or converted them to natural gas, a cleaner-burning and less expensive fuel. Both points are true, and irrelevant. Converting a coal-fired power plant to natural gas is not cheap, which is why trade journals such as “Power Engineering” explain that the usual procedure is to tear the old plant down and build a new one. There is also the question of supply in pipeline-phobic Virginia.
Shuttering the plants is even more problematic. Since the power requirements of the Commonwealth are growing, not shrinking — something we assume will continue — supply of electricity must grow, not shrink.
In February, 2019, Virginia consumed 5,164,000 MWH of electricity produced by coal and gas. Renewables produced 349,000. To replace coal and natural gas with photovoltaics would require a bit more than 20,000 square miles of land at current efficiencies; just under half of the Commonwealth’s entire territory. And then, there’s storage.
But that’s beside the point. What’s being illustrated here is the Virginia’s political class’s utter unfamiliarity with reality. They’re not only not on speaking terms, they don’t even share the same zip code.
Yes, Dominion Energy is a corporate corsair; a business bully. It has cajoled, threatened, rented and otherwise worked its will on numerous Commonwealth Assemblies; it will doubtless continue to do so until stopped, and no House of Delegates has shown any appetite for a scrap with its most generous benefactor.
Much of Virginia’s political class, however, uses Dominion in political Kabuki theatre. To the environmentally deranged, it is a hopeless polluter which must be punished for providing Virginians the power essential to their daily lives. To the class demagogue it is a tool of the rich, an exploiter out to rob its customers blind. To private property rights monomaniacs it is a tool of the usurper state, out to steal the property of the powerless. It doesn’t help Dominion’s cause that it has been all those things, and to some degree still is.
That said, it is also an enterprise and a supplier of an essential product: electrical power. For which it charges because it is an enterprise, organized as most are, to create shareholder value. As such it must pay its capital costs, so without profit, it will fail.
To be aware of the alternative, have a look at Puerto Rico. For decades, the state-owned Electric Power Authority deferred maintenance, deferred upgrades, deferred expansion and generally neglected their systems. Through a combination of enormous, pervasive corruption and an official policy of electricity rates so low they forbade capital accumulation, the Authority staggered along near bankruptcy for many years. Then Irma and Maria struck. We all know what happened: the entire island lost power. A year later, it had only been partially restored.
Although Puerto Rico-level corruption is not a feature of Dominion Energy, political meddling in Dominion’s business is. Not regulation; that’s an expected necessity for a “regulated utility.” But interfering with calculations made in response to clear shifts in the market and regulatory environment are unhelpful, and indeed, damaging.
What’s clear is that Attorney General Mark Herring thinks taking on Dominion over a temporary increase in rates for necessary improvements will be popular, allowing him to claim that he “kept electricity rates low.” He doesn’t care that such actions risk creating a vulnerable grid; his calculation appears to be that any collapse will occur after he has left office.