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Dominion wants Wise County coal plant to stay as is

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Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

A report by Dominion Energy finds the company’s largely coal-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County is economically viable, but critics say it lacks substantial, in-depth analysis to support its claims that the plant’s economic and environmental benefits justify continuing its current operations.

Dominion filed the 28-page report as part of a deal made earlier this year with the State Corporation Commission and the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, which argued the plant should be closed next year. The company’s own calculations, the chapter contended, found the plant’s operations will cost ratepayers almost $500 million by 2030 while producing only 6.3% of the power it’s capable of generating.

Under that deal, Dominion agreed to “complete an analysis of a possible pathway towards economic viability” for VCHEC “on a going-forward basis.”


Dominion agrees to study viability of Wise power plant that’s not producing much power

The report was required to consider scenarios in which the plant retired prior to 2045, the deadline for fossil fuel plant retirements under the Virginia Clean Economy Act, and analyze alternative uses for the site, including solar, wind, and energy storage development. Additionally, it was required to include a discussion of local economic impacts, system reliability, environmental justice, and the social cost of carbon.

What resulted was a discussion of the plant’s annual $156 million in economic benefits to Wise County, the environmental benefits of using coal waste as fuel, and the potential siting of a battery storage facility or small modular nuclear reactor at the location.

“The facility’s operations are currently economic, given present market conditions and high natural gas prices, and it has a path for economical operation through at least 2045,” the report states. “The significant regional economic and environmental benefits which would be foregone in any early-retirement scenario also militate against early retirement.”

But critics say the report fails to fully analyze the plant’s possible uses, particularly in light of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law, or grapple with the question of whether ratepayers, all of whom live outside Wise County, should be paying for the plant’s benefits.

“We’re pretty disappointed with it,” said Evan Johns, a senior attorney with West Virginia-based Appalachian Mountain Advocates representing the Sierra Club. “There are some obvious omissions from it.”

In response to several questions from the Mercury about ratepayer impacts and plant operations, Dominion Energy spokesperson Jeremy Slayton provided a two-sentence statement.

“VCHEC plays an important role in providing our customers with reliable and affordable electricity,” Slayton said. “Additionally, the station provides hundreds of jobs and significant contributions to the local economy in Southwest Virginia while helping clean up millions of tons of waste coal, thereby improving environmental quality in the region.”

Dominion defends ongoing operation

VCHEC began operations in July 2012 and produces 610 megawatts of electricity using a combination of waste coal, waste wood, and regular coal as fuel.

It was built after the General Assembly in 2004 passed a law declaring a plant fired with Virginia coal and located in the coalfield region of the state to be in the public interest. In 2007 the legislature amended the statute to allow Dominion to recover costs of the facility through a rider or additional fee on customers’ bills.

Today, according to Dominion’s viability report, VCHEC supports about 121 direct and 180 indirect jobs. The plant further provides over $11 million in tax revenue to Wise County annually, regional property taxes, and more than $3.5 million in charitable giving.

Beyond the dollars the plant pumps into the region, Dominion argues that it produces a range of environmental benefits. All wastewater discharged is treated on-site, boilers capture carbon and the facility cleans up the toxic byproduct of coal production known as gob coal.

The report states that Southwest Virginia has more than 100 million tons of gob. That waste can reach waterways, and natural oxidation in piles of gob releases methane and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to climate change.

Legislation passed in 2022 directs the Department of Energy to submit a report to the General Assembly by next month on options for cleaning up gob piles, which Dominion contends can only be done permanently through VCHEC.

Additionally, with the rising costs of natural gas and oil, the report argues that VCHEC’s use of coal makes it an “important” part of Dominion’s generation fleet that can be used in high-demand periods.

If closed early, the company calculates VCHEC would cause Dominion customers losses of between $40.9 million and $158.8 million.

Overall, Dominion says it would need to recoup $1.8 billion from ratepayers to close VCHEC in 2026, $2.4 billion to close it in 2030 and $4.4 billion to close it in 2045.  Customers would see steeper cost peaks if the plant were closed earlier: For residential customers, the rider would peak in 2024 at $7.80 for retirement in 2026, $5.35 for retirement in 2030 and $3.78 for retirement in 2045.

In analyzing potential alternative uses of the site, Dominion says onshore wind isn’t viable, and only 6 megawatts of solar could be supported. But because the plant is not connected to Dominion’s distribution system — Appalachian Power Company is the local transmission operator — there would be financial and technical challenges to connecting it.

The company says a roughly 600-megawatt energy storage facility could be supported at the site, but placing such a facility at a location with greater power needs would be a better value to customers, and a battery storage facility would support fewer jobs.

Another option could be an SMR, which could produce up to 300 megawatts of power with fewer manufacturing requirements than a larger nuclear plant. But because the technology is not ready for deployment in the U.S. (the first aren’t expected to come online until the end of the decade), such plans are speculative, the report states.

Gov. Youngkin wants a small modular reactor. What exactly is that?

Critics say report falls short

While developing state policy to create economic and environmental benefits for a region is one thing, said William Shobe, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, having Dominion customers foot the bill for them is another.

“There is no net gain from the state’s point of view by moving money from (outside the region) to Wise County through electricity rates,” Shobe said. “There seems to be an assumption in here that people across the state are responsible for cleaning up gob without thinking about what the cost is to people in the rest of the state.”

Furthermore, for the plant to produce those benefits, it “almost certainly” requires ratepayers to pay more than the value of the electricity generated by the plant to keep it open, Shobe said.

Use of VCHEC has been dropping: A recent filing by Dominion with the State Corporation Commission shows that the plant’s capacity factor, a measurement of the actual power a facility produces compared to how much it’s capable of producing, will peak in coming years at 15.5% in 2024 and then continue to decline to 6.33% in 2029.

“Electricity from VCHEC is simply too expensive most of the year for the plant to be dispatched. Other sources are cheaper,” Shobe said. “The state would need to subsidize the operation of the plant for it to run at a higher capacity factor.”

Johns said the report was also overly dismissive of other potential uses for the site

While he noted solar and wind might be difficult to develop at VCHEC, he said the report unnecessarily dismisses its battery storage potential and fails to consider benefits included in the Inflation Reduction Act. Those include incentives for clean energy projects for communities that have historically relied on coal mining, like those in Southwest Virginia. Additionally, funding is available from the bipartisan infrastructure law to address abandoned mine land recovery and finance programs to help alleviate the cost of fossil plant retirement.

“It’s just really disappointing to have all of these legislative provisions that affect a lot of the issues being looked at in this report and just completely to omit them,” Johns said.

Finally, he said, the report discusses the social cost of carbon in one fuel cost case, but not another. And it doesn’t clearly indicate where Dominion is sourcing its fuel for the burning of gob coal, which Johns said will likely get more expensive and less useful over time.

It just doesn’t have the “kind of discrepancies you like to see if you’re really trying to isolate variables [to] look at how a facility like VCHEC is expected to run under a wide array of scenarios,” he said.

 

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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An Arlington push for stronger swatting laws and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder gave congressional testimony that was “often evasive or misleading,” according to a report from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has been looking into a variety of misconduct allegations surrounding the team.—Washington Post

• William Fowler, a former sergeant with the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office who is married to Democratic Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, has filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired over politics. Sheriff Ken Stolle called the claims “completely frivolous.”—Virginian-Pilot

• Arlington County is helping lead a push for stronger Virginia laws against “swatting,” the practice of calling in fake threats to draw a police response to a targeted location.—ARLNow


• An Albemarle County judge set a March 30 preliminary hearing in the case of Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., the University of Virginia student facing murder charges for allegedly killing three football players in a shooting last month.—VPM

• The owner of a Spotsylvania County restaurant that’s feuded with authorities over COVID-19 rules rejected Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to forgive all punishments for businesses like his. “You have proven how ineffective and weak you are as a leader,” wrote owner Matt Strickland, who’s also a Republican candidate for state Senate.—Free Lance-Star

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia officials say more than 10,500 felons remained on voter rolls after re-offending

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Another data glitch in Virginia’s election system caused 10,558 felons to remain on the voter rolls after they committed new crimes that should’ve made them ineligible to vote, state officials announced Friday.

The Virginia Department of Elections said it discovered the issue while conducting list maintenance as the agency prepares to replace the state’s aging voter system.

The affected voter registrations involve people with felony convictions who had their rights restored by governors as Virginia dramatically relaxed its lifetime disenfranchisement policy over the last decade. As hundreds of thousands of felons regained their right to vote, the state’s voter system wasn’t set up to account for the possibility that some of those newly registered voters might re-offend and become ineligible again.

“The original computer code written for the restoration of rights process did not provide for the instance in which an individual might be reconvicted of a felony following the restoration of their rights,” the agency release said. “ELECT has automated a solution to cancel these voters and add them back to the prohibited list.”


According to officials, only a small portion of the impacted voters — roughly 1,000 — have cast a ballot in a Virginia election since 2011. That indicates the impact on election outcomes was likely minimal because the vast majority of people who had their rights restored did not re-offend.

Governors from both parties have prioritized rights restoration over the last decade, meaning a felony conviction no longer prohibits democratic participation for life as it once did. However, the lifetime felon disenfranchisement policy remains in the Virginia Constitution, despite the repeal efforts of advocates who argue fundamental rights shouldn’t come down to the whims of whatever governor happens to be in office. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made rights restoration a major focus of his administration, restoring the rights of more than 150,000 people during his time in office.

The felon issue comes after the elections department experienced significant problems earlier this year processing voter registration data coming over from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Before the midterm elections, local election officials had to process more than 250,000 transactions that hadn’t properly transferred. Officials said that issue was also caused by faulty computer code.

The new voter system, which officials have said is expected to address many technological defects in the current one, is set to be developed and implemented over the next two years.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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School divisions, facing buildings in disrepair, tap into new buckets of money

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A tour of Henrico’s new Highland Springs High School construction is estimated to cost about $80 million. (2021 photo Henrico County Public Schools)

 

According to state data related to school construction needs, Grayson, Franklin City, Martinsville, Bristol, and Petersburg are Virginia’s most financially strapped localities.

The five have fiscal stress ratings of around 107. By contrast, many divisions in the more affluent Northern Virginia have scores of around 90. The state average is set at 100.

A school division’s financial situation is one of the major factors state officials consider in determining whether to provide a loan to help cover the costs of repairing and replacing aging buildings. More than half of all school buildings in Virginia are greater than 50 years old, according to a June 2021 presentation to the Commission on School Construction and Modernization.


Some common needs among school divisions are roof repairs and replacements, as well as safety upgrades and fixes for electrical and plumbing issues.

Additionally, the June report found 19% of schools failed to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with estimated compliance costs totaling more than $204 million.

The biennial budget signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin this August put $400 million into the state’s Literary Fund to be loaned out to local school divisions for construction projects at lower interest rates than previously allowed by law. However, some districts say the state’s criteria for those loans, which include the division’s ability to pay back the loan, has deterred them from seeking such assistance.

Jason Wood, superintendent of Patrick County Public Schools, said rural school divisions “would benefit more from additional grant opportunities, not loans that we cannot afford to repay.”

“Asking our taxpayers to take out another loan will be too burdensome when the majority of our local revenue already comes from property taxes,” he said. “Just as rural and small schools need a different funding formula to level the playing field with larger divisions, they also need additional help in school construction.”

Most portions of Patrick County’s schools date back to the late 1930s. The county also has one of the oldest collections of buildings in the state, with a median age of 82 years. At the same time, it has one of the state’s lowest composite index ratings, a measurement of a division’s ability to pay education costs, according to the latest data collected by the Virginia Department of Education.

While some divisions cannot seek assistance from the state’s Literary Fund because they cannot pay the loan back, others say they are constricted by a rule that prohibits divisions from getting Literary Fund loans to help cover the costs of projects that are already underway.

That’s the case in Floyd County, where the school division has one of the oldest groups of facilities in the state, with a median age of 75.5 years.

Floyd County Public Schools Superintendent John Wheeler said while the division was fortunate to be able to start on construction and renovation projects about four years ago when costs were lower, it is ineligible for a loan since its projects are underway.

2022 legislation

In the last session, with Virginia seeing record surpluses, lawmakers gave school divisions more options to get state funds for school construction and modernization.

The newly created School Construction Fund and Program offer competitive grants supported by appropriations from the general fund and literary funds, with ongoing funds to come from the newly authorized casino gambling in Virginia. This year, the new gaming proceeds fund is expected to receive $4.7 million from Virginia’s only operating casino, in Bristol, but casinos could generate up to $828 million in net revenue by 2028 when four casinos are expected to be up and running.

Under the School Construction Grants Program, a revived version of a program that existed before the Great Recession, schools receive funding based on a formula and can carry over those funds to future fiscal years. Recipients are determined through scoring criteria developed by the Board of Education. That program received $400 million in funding this year.

The School Construction Assistance Program, which received $450 million in the budget, awards competitive grants to divisions covering 10 to 30% of project costs. The program prioritizes grants to divisions with poor building conditions and higher fiscal needs, with recipients determined based on the local composite index and fiscal stress classification.

Before those investments, schools financed improvements with a combination of local revenues, bank loans, bonds, and state and federal funds like Literary Fund loans.

Nine localities in Virginia, including Mecklenburg and Patrick counties, are allowed to impose a local sales and use tax to fund school construction projects. Efforts to allow more local governments to levy such taxes failed in a House subcommittee during the last General Assembly session.

Legislation to create incentives for local governing bodies and school boards to set aside funds not spent in a school year for maintenance, renovation, or construction projects also failed during the same session.

Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools in Virginia, said he and other advocates are asking the General Assembly to make adjustments to how the state awards funds for construction costs. One recommendation is to make all construction projects that were either started or completed during the current biennium eligible for the School Construction Assistance Program.

That, said Perrigan, “will provide much-needed resources to high-poverty school divisions.”

Ken Nicely, Roanoke County Public Schools superintendent, said the school division will qualify for $100,000 from the School Construction Assistance Program based on its composite index. However, he’s concerned Roanoke will not meet the criteria for grant funds due to the way different factors, such as need and building conditions, are scored.

“We will still apply for the grant in order to express interest and true need, but we are concerned that our projects will not score high enough due to the manner in which the point values were assigned,” Nicely said.

He said he hopes that the criteria will be adjusted for future competitive grants in order to allow divisions to complete and additional funds will be appropriated by the General Assembly for the formula grants.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Attorney General Miyares issues restitution checks to consumers harmed by service dogs organization

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Attorney General Jason Miyares announced that his office has mailed restitution checks totaling $192,667.11 to 94 consumers as part of two judgments entered in a lawsuit filed against Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, Inc. (SDWR) and its founder, Charles “Dan” Warren, Jr. The Attorney General’s Office filed suit against SDWR, a Virginia-based company that sold purported service dogs to consumers nationwide, and Warren for alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions law.

“Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, Inc. sold dogs that purportedly could assist people with various conditions such as diabetes, autism, seizure disorders, or post-traumatic stress. I’m proud that we are now able to return some money to these consumers, thanks to the dedication and commitment of my Consumer Protection Section,” said Attorney General Miyares.

Instead of receiving service dogs, consumers often were delivered poorly-trained puppies with significant behavioral challenges and inadequate skills or training. The Amended Complaint also alleged that SDWR and Warren misled customers, charitable donors, and the public about certain aspects of the business’s payment structure, its affiliation with local police departments, and Warren’s own military service.

In August 2021, the Commonwealth obtained a judgment against SDWR in Madison County Circuit Court (after SDWR filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in the Western District of Virginia Bankruptcy Court) and a Consent Judgment settlement with Mr. Warren. The restitution funds mailed by Attorney General Miyares today represent a portion of those judgments, the sources of which include a distribution from the SDWR bankruptcy estate obtained this year and a settlement payment from Mr. Warren.


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Virginia State Police won’t release job records of ex-trooper who killed 3 in California

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Virginia State Police acknowledged “human error” caused them to miss a violent incident in the past of a former state trooper who killed three people in California last month, but the agency is refusing to release 247 pages of personnel records that could shed more light on his time as a state employee.

The Virginia Mercury filed a public records request for all documents related to State Police administrative investigations and background checks of former trooper Austin Lee Edwards, whom authorities say “catfished” a 15-year-old California girl online before traveling there and killing three members of her family.

Edwards’ 15-month stint as a State Police trooper ended Oct. 28, when he left his state job to join the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Southwest Virginia. According to California authorities, Edwards killed the girl’s mother and grandparents on Nov. 25 and tried to kidnap her before dying by suicide during a shootout with police.

State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency was choosing to “exercise its statutory discretion” to keep the employment records confidential. Asked if the agency could explain that choice given the significant public interest in the murders Edwards committed and his background as a police officer in Virginia, Geller said the state’s transparency laws don’t require the agency to comment further.


Edwards’ behavior as a State Police officer never triggered any internal investigations, according to the agency, and there was no potentially troubling information in his background that the agency would have been legally required to pass along to his new law enforcement employer in Washington County. Under Virginia law, the State Police would have had to tell the county sheriff’s office about any alleged criminal activity, excessive force, or other misconduct in Edwards’ law enforcement background.

However, State Police say their own hiring process was flawed because they were unaware that a court-ordered Edwards to be hospitalized for a mental health episode in 2016, years before he became a state trooper, in which he threatened to kill himself and his father, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In a news release Wednesday night, State Police said, “human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process.” The hiring process, the agency said, includes a background check “that requires passage of written, psychological and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph.”

“Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward,” the agency said. “The department is also proactively auditing existing personnel records and practices.”

The agency said it is conducting a “forensic review” of Edwards’ state-issued laptop and cell phone.

Geller made clear the agency would not be releasing any personnel information related to Edwards, including his monthly job performance evaluations.

“The materials you are seeking constitute personnel information of this agency concerning identifiable individuals,” Geller said, pointing to a longstanding exemption in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that allows state and local governments to shield a wide array of records dealing with the hiring, firing, and performance of public employees.

However, the Supreme Court of Virginia recently narrowed the exemption in an October opinion that concluded government agencies don’t have a blanket right to shield all personnel records. Instead, the court found, the exemption only applies to truly private information, defined as anything that, if disclosed, would appear to be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” to a reasonable person.

Federal FOIA guidance says that “after death, a person no longer possesses privacy rights.” But that interpretation doesn’t bind state agencies or state courts.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Loudoun superintendent fired after grand jury report and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• The NCAA is granting another year of eligibility to all University of Virginia football players who were playing in their final year this season. The move comes in response to the mass shooting last month that left three players dead and led the team to cancel several games.—Daily Progress

• The Loudoun County School Board voted to fire Superintendent Scott Ziegler following the release of a grand jury report that concluded he lied about a sexual assault that took place in a high-school bathroom.—WTOP

• The average gas price in Virginia has fallen back to $3.21 per gallon, the same price as a year ago, after hitting a high of $4.86 in mid-June.—Richmond Times-Dispatch


• Virginia will get $16 million as part of a $434 million national settlement with Juul Labs, the e-cigarette maker accused of marketing its products to minors.—WRIC

• “Dozens of members of Congress and other Virginia dignitaries paid their respects to Rep. A. Donald McEachin at his funeral in Richmond on Wednesday morning, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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