Children need the EPA’s carbon pollution standard

This post, from guest blogger Samantha Ahdoot, originally appeared in the August 21 edition of the Fairfax County Times. I’ve written about the threat that increasing summer temperatures poses for people who have to work outdoors in ; here, Dr. Ahdoot tells us what carbon pollution means for children.

The end of summer fun? Higher temperatures resulting from carbon pollution could limit children's outdoor time.

The end of summer fun? Higher temperatures resulting from carbon pollution could limit children’s outdoor time.

Every day, parents protect their children from a myriad of risks. By strapping them in car seats, placing them on their backs to sleep and cutting their grapes into quarters, parents do everything in their power to insure their children against harm. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be called many things in the upcoming months, but it is ultimately an insurance plan. It is insurance for our children against the dangers of carbon pollution and resulting climate change.

Carbon pollution presents a major risk to the health, safety and security of current and future children. Rising atmospheric carbon is making our planet hotter. While skeptics may say this remains uncertain, our major scientific organizations (NASA, NOAA, IPCC) tell us it is at least very, very likely. With this increased heat, many other climactic changes are already occurring, including melting glaciers, rising sea levels and worsening storms. These fundamental changes ultimately impact human health, and children are amongst the most vulnerable to these changes. Some impacts are already affecting children today and are being seen by pediatricians like myself.

Allergic rhinitis, for example, affects about 10 percent of American children. With later first frost and earlier spring thaw due to rising global temperature, the allergy season has become longer. In the Northern Virginia region, where I practice, it has lengthened by about two weeks. More northern regions of the country have experienced greater lengthening. Higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also causes ragweed plants today to produce more pollen than in preindustrial times. Allergy season is therefore both longer and more severe.

Some infectious disease patterns have already been impacted by climactic changes. As global temperatures rise, many plants and animals are migrating poleward. They are bringing diseases, like Lyme disease, with them. There is now Lyme disease in Canada, and large increases in reported cases of Lyme have occurred in the northern U.S. Maine had 175 cases in 2003 and 1300 cases in 2013, while New Hampshire had 262 cases in 2002 and greater than 1300 cases in 2013. Children under five years old, who spend the most time outside playing in high-risk areas, have the highest incidence of Lyme disease.

Increasingly long and severe heat waves also place children at risk of heat-related illness. While the elderly are at highest risk from extreme heat, some groups of children also appear to be vulnerable. Infants less than one year, for example, have immature thermoregulation, and infant mortality has been found to increase due to extreme heat. A study from MIT found that by the end of the 21st century, under a “business as usual” scenario, infant mortality rates would increase by 5.5 percent in females and 7.8 percent in males due to heat-related deaths. U.S. student athletes are a high-risk group for heat injury. Teenage boys, most commonly football players, made up 35 percent of the roughly 5,900 people treated yearly in emergency rooms for exertional heat illness between 2001 and 2009. According to the CDC, heat illness is a leading cause of disability in high school athletes, with a national estimate of 9,237 illnesses annually.

Health impacts on individuals and communities will grow significantly if we allow carbon emissions, and global temperatures, to rise unchecked. Power plants contribute approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Reducing emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants represents a major step towards altering our emissions, and climate, trajectory. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is, ultimately, like a car seat- an insurance plan for our children against a significant risk of harm. The road of climate change will be long and hazardous. Our children deserve to be strapped in.

Dr. Samantha Ahdoot is pediatrician in Alexandria. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and a member of the Executive Committee of the AAP’s Council on Environmental Health.

Finally, utility-scale solar for Virginia?

111022-N-OH262-322After a solar buying spree in other states, Dominion Power is at last taking a look at the possibility of building utility-scale solar in Virginia.

As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dominion Resources, the parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is considering building 220 megawatts of solar projects in Virginia, starting in 2017. The plan would involve five 40-megawatt “greenfield” projects, plus 20 megawatts located at existing power stations. (A greenfield is an area that is not already developed. So the large projects would be on former farmland, say, not closed landfills or old industrial sites.)

The company’s recent solar buys in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Georgia and Tennessee have all involved the unregulated, merchant side of Dominion Resources. But in this case, the plan is for Dominion Virginia Power to own the Virginia projects and sell the electricity to its customers here in the Commonwealth. This would require approval of the State Corporation Commission—which, as we know, is no friend to renewable energy.

A little more digging confirmed that Dominion plans to sell the solar energy to the whole rate base, rather than, say, to participants in the voluntary Green Power Program. How would they get that past the SCC? That remains unclear, but they know keeping the cost down will be key. Right now they’re looking at all the options to make it work. The company is still at the conceptual stage, is still looking for good sites of 100 acres and up, and hasn’t even made a decision to proceed.

So we should probably hold our excitement in check for now. After all, Dominion has had wind farms in Virginia “under development” for the past several years, with nary a turbine in sight.

Solar does have a few advantages over wind, though, from a utility perspective. For one, it produces power during the day, when demand is higher, while onshore wind tends to blow more at night. (Offshore wind, on the other hand, picks up in the late afternoon and evening, right at peak demand time.) And unlike wind farms in the Midwest and Great Plains, where turbines coexist peacefully with cows and cornfields, turbines in the mountains of the east have generated opposition from people concerned about impacts on forests and viewsheds. You find some curmudgeons who think solar panels are ugly, but they aren’t trying to block them wholesale at the county level.

With the sharp drop in solar costs over the last few years, large-scale solar has been looking increasingly attractive to utilities that want to beef up their renewable energy portfolios. As we learned recently, Dominion’s got a long way to go before it competes with even an average utility elsewhere. That puts it in a poor position to respond to the rapid changes heading our way. These include not just growing public demand for wind and solar and new regulatory constraints on carbon emissions, but also the much-discussed upending of the traditional utility model that depends on a captive customer base and large centralized generating plants running baseload power. Distributed generation and batteries increasingly offer customers a way to untether themselves from the grid, while wind and solar together are pushing grid operators towards a more nimble approach to meeting demand—one in which baseload is no longer a virtue.

Dominion and its fossil fuel and nuclear allies are fighting hard against the tide, but in the end, Dominion will do whatever it takes to keep making money. And right now, the smart money is on solar.

None of this means we should expect Dominion to become more friendly to pro-solar legislation that will “let our customers compete with us,” as one Dominion Vice President put it. But it does suggest an opening for legislation that would promote utility-owned solar, perhaps through the RPS or stand-alone bills.

Legislators shouldn’t view utility-owned solar as an alternative to customer-owned solar; we need both. And if being grid-tied means being denied the right to affordable solar energy, we will see customers begin to abandon the grid. But those aren’t arguments against utility-scale solar, either. Big projects like the ones Dominion proposes are critical to helping us catch up to other states and reduce our carbon emissions.

So full speed ahead, Dominion! We’re all waiting.


Report confirms Dominion’s worst-place standing on clean energy

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

A new report from the non-profit group Ceres shows Dominion Resources, the parent of Dominion Virginia Power, winning last place among investor-owned utilities on a nationwide ranking of renewable energy sales and energy efficiency savings.

That’s left Virginians wondering how a company that talks so big succeeds in doing so little. And more importantly, what would it take for Dominion to rank even among the average?

Dominion came in 30th out of 32 in renewable energy sales, at 0.52%. On energy efficiency, it achieved 31st out of 32 on savings measured cumulatively (0.41%), and 32nd out of 32 measured on an incremental annual level (at 0.03%). Together these put our team in last place overall—a notable achievement for a utility that trumpets its solar investments and carbon-cutting progress.

To show just how awful Dominion’s performance is, the top five finishers achieved between 16.67% and 21.08% on renewable energy sales, 10.62-17.18% on cumulative annual energy efficiency, and 1.46-1.77% on incremental annual energy efficiency. National averages were 5.29% for renewable energy sales, 4.96% for cumulative efficiency savings, and 0.73% for incremental annual efficiency savings. Rankings were based on 2012 numbers, the latest year for which data were available.

In case you’re wondering, American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power Co., earned 24th place for renewable energy, with 2.65% of sales from renewables—a number only half the national average and one we might have called pathetic if it weren’t five times higher than Dominion’s. AEP’s efficiency rankings also placed it firmly in the bottom half of utilities, running 23d and 20th for cumulative and incremental efficiency savings, respectively. However, AEP earned its own laurels recently as the nation’s largest emitter of carbon pollution from power plants due to its coal-centric portfolio.

A study of the rankings reveals that Dominion’s major competition for the title of absolute worst came from other utilities based in the South. The critic’s favorite, Southern Company, nabbed 31st place on the renewable energy sales measure, but failed to make the bottom five on one of the efficiency rankings. Another southeastern utility, SCANA, achieved rock bottom on renewable energy; but like Southern, its marginally better performance on efficiency disqualified it from an overall last-place ranking.

Why do utilities in the South do so poorly? Probably because they can. Most of the poor performers have monopoly control over their territories and are powerful players in their state legislatures. Lacking in competition, they do what’s best for themselves. Possessing political power, they are able to keep it that way.

Of course, they still have to contend with public opinion and the occasional legislator who gets out of line. For that it helps to have a well-worn narrative handy, like the one about how expensive clean energy is. Dominion has found that Virginia’s leaders fall for that one readily, even though it’s false.

And so, when asked about the Ceres report, Dominion responded that Virginia wouldn’t want to be like the states that have high-performing utilities. Dominion spokesman Dan Genest told the Daily Press, “The three states — California, Connecticut and Massachusetts — the report mentions as being leaders in those categories also have among the highest electric rates in the nation. Typical residential customer monthly bills are $228.85, $206.07 and $191.04, respectively. Dominion Virginia Power customers pay $112.45.”

This would be an excellent point, if it were true. Alas, Genest’s numbers appear to be a product of a fevered imagination. According to recent data reported in the Washington Post, California’s average monthly electric bill is only $87.91, Connecticut’s comes in at $126.75, and Massachusetts’ at $93.53, while Virginia’s is $123.72. (Virginia’s numbers presumably reflect an average of bills paid by customers statewide, probably accounting for the higher figure than Genest cites for Dominion’s “typical” customer.)

That’s right: in spite of higher rates, Californians pay way less for electricity than Virginians do, in part because they have achieved high levels of energy efficiency. If you do that, you can afford to invest in more renewable energy without people’s bills going up.

This is such a great idea that it seems like it would be worth trying it here. Remarkably, this is precisely the strategy that environmental groups have been urging for years in their conversations with legislators and their filings at the State Corporation Commission. With the pressure on from global warming and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, this would seem to be a great opportunity to save money, cut carbon, and move us into the 21st century.

So go for it, Dominion. Aspire to lead! Or failing that, at least shoot for average.