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Rail union negotiates more terms; some workers still disappointed
RICHMOND, Va. – Rail workers in a union with Virginia members reached a second tentative agreement with railroad corporations days ahead of another planned strike, though some members said they are still not happy with the new terms.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19, or IAM District 19, rejected the initial tentative agreement made between President Joe Biden’s administration, labor unions, and top railroad corporations, including CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.
The initial agreement included pay raises, better health care, and an additional personal day of leave, according to an IAM District 19 press release. The negotiations helped stop a mid-September rail strike that would have shut down passenger and freight rail.
The new tentative agreement outlines additional benefits like health care cost caps, travel reimbursement and single room occupancy, and a study on overtime pay, according to IAM District 19.
According to the union’s website, IAM District 19 represents 92 chapter unions across the U.S. and Canada, including one in Richmond.
According to a statistic from the National Railway Labor Conference, 12 unions represent about 125,000 rail workers, and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee represents more than 30 railroads in the U.S..
IAM District 19 members will still need to vote on the most recent agreement, which also includes the terms negotiated earlier this month, according to Eric Peters, a member of the union and a CSX roadway mechanic.
According to Peters, some workers are still upset that this recent round of negotiations did not resolve the lack of sick days and days off, the request to accrue vacation time faster, and the overall feeling of not being recognized as hard workers.
Some of the terms in the new agreement have already existed, like the solo hotel room occupancy during travel, just not in writing, Peters said. “Mechanics have had that for 20 years for CSX.”
Rail workers are still pushing for more time off, although the agreements would mean “a healthy pay raise,” according to Peters. Workers would see a 24% general wage increase with a $5,000 service recognition bonus, according to the IAM District 19 press release. This includes retroactive pay up to almost $12,000 within 60 days of the agreement ratification date.
According to Peters, train conductors get about one day off a month when they aren’t on call.
“The rest of the time, they’re on a two-hour recall,” Peters said. “If they don’t make it, they get in trouble, and that’s not a positive way to live.”
Rail workers receive about three weeks of paid vacation, and senior workers receive about five weeks on average, according to the Association of American Railroads, or AAR. Sick-time policies and routine medical care are pressing issues, but additional sick time was not implemented during the union negotiations.
Rail carriers offer a “federal sickness benefit program” to workers under existing agreements, while the new agreements recognize time-off for routine and preventative medical care, according to the National Railway Labor Conference, or NRLC, which represents railroads.
“I have no sick days at all,” Peters said, who said he has worked for the company for approximately 12 years.
Peters feels like the new tentative agreement still does not address these concerns.
Peters said that rail companies need to catch up to the rest of society and offer better benefits.
According to Peters, IAM District 19 originally planned to strike on Sept. 29 if additional negotiations were not met. Workers are now in a “cooling off” period that expires Dec. 9. They cannot strike until that date. Peters said some members are not happy leadership agreed to the additional cooling-off period.
“The members feel like they voted to strike, they waited their time, and they should have been given the opportunity to strike and to use their voice,” Peters said.
Workers have waited three years to strike, he said.
“We were prepared and ready and have been waiting a long time for our voices to be heard,” Peters said.
Once the member’s votes are finalized, it will dictate whether IAM District 19 accepts or rejects the new terms.
According to Madison Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association, national rail companies are being blamed for the poor working conditions that push workers to the extremes of organized strikes. According to its mission statement, the association advocates for more rail services and quicker rides for passengers.
“There are fundamental rights that these workers should have, and given the profit margins that these [Class 1 freight] companies take home, there’s no reason not to return that to the workers,” Butler said.
Cliff Dunn is co-chair of Virginians for High-Speed Rail and a frequent train rider. Corporations cutting jobs by the thousands have led to a decrease in working conditions, Dunn said.
“In some ways, the bad working conditions themselves are a symptom of the head-count [attendance] problem,” Dunn said.
The Railway Labor Act was drafted in 1926 to allow workers to collectively bargain to fix labor issues and help ensure the continued transport of goods, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, the overseeing agency.
According to Dunn, freight railroads across the country started to shut down a day before the planned Sept. 16 strike.
“If everybody goes on a strike, they don’t want to have a bunch of freight trains going dead in the middle of nowhere,” Dunn said.
Amtrak, a national passenger railroad company that shares freight rail tracks along some routes, preemptively canceled all long-distance passenger trips prior to the tentative agreement, according to a media statement from Amtrak media spokesperson Kimberly Woods.
Butler said the Sept. 16 strike could have affected over 19 million rail travelers.
The first tentative agreement was nearly three years in the making and involved two major unions in the country: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division.
All unions are expected to ratify or reject the negotiated terms in the next few months, according to the NRLC.
By Adrianna Lawrence
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Report: Cutting prison fees could save incarcerated Virginians and their families $28.3M
If the Virginia prison system were to heed the recommendations of reformers who want to make life behind bars less expensive for inmates, it could save prisoners and their families up to $28.3 million per year by shifting those costs elsewhere, according to a new report.
At the General Assembly’s request, a workgroup has been studying the possibility of cutting costs and fees charged to inmates for making phone calls, using tablets to listen to music or play games, accessing the internet, and purchasing food, clothes, and other supplies from commissaries.
In a 54-page report delivered on October 1, members of the workgroup who aren’t affiliated with the Virginia Department of Corrections made various recommendations to ease the financial burden on incarcerated people and their relatives, many of whom are low-income. Inmates themselves have little ability to make their own money, the report says, because prison jobs pay a maximum of $54 per month.
Throughout the report, prison officials largely advised against sticking taxpayers with a higher bill and raised security concerns to justify limits on inmates’ contact with the outside world.
The report — the work of VADOC officials, legislators, and advocacy groups that work on prison reform and reentry issues — lays out a detailed menu of options for policymakers to consider in future General Assembly sessions, with recommendations from nongovernmental members contrasted with skepticism from prison officials.
“While we could not achieve consensus on the recommendations, the department appreciates the insight and feedback from stakeholders,” the corrections department wrote in a closing statement.
A VADOC spokesman said the agency was reviewing the report internally and declined to comment further.
The study arose from a bill filed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun. The original version would have implemented many of the cuts the study considered, but legislators decided to take more time to review the topic before taking action.
“I think that we can find solutions that are both fiscally responsible and humane,” Boysko said in an interview Tuesday, adding that she’s still considering whether she’ll file another bill on the matter in 2023.
Republicans largely backed the study, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill initiating it, but it’s unclear if something like the original bill could pass with the GOP pushing tough-on-crime, low-tax messaging ahead of next year’s General Assembly elections.
Boysko noted that the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity backed her original bill and said some Republicans “see this as a real burden.”
“This is what we call a captive market,” Americans for Prosperity Virginia’s Ben Knotts said during a committee hearing in January. “It is when the government has control over a product and they get to decide the terms of it.”
Democratic proponents of the bill have argued that the state’s poorest people shouldn’t have to pay steep bills to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones and help them maintain basic living standards. Some Republicans have seemed skeptical of spending more public money to make life easier for people convicted of crimes, warning against making goods and services in prison cheaper than they would be for those on the outside.
The biggest financial shift the report envisions is upping daily spending on prison food from $2.20 to $4 per person, a change estimated to cost $16.7 million. Advocates say spending more to provide better food would improve inmates’ health and reduce their need to buy extra food from the commissary because the regular meals they’re served “vary in quality.”
“It’s the state’s responsibility to feed people adequately and nutritionally, and that cannot be done for $0.73 cents per meal,” the report says. “Nor is it ultimately cost-effective, since overreliance on both starchy, nutrient-deficient food service meals and packaged and processed commissary items leads to diet-related diseases that taxpayers pay for eventually in medical costs.”
In its response, the Department of Corrections said it hasn’t had time to “analyze the practicability” of those suggestions while noting it’s already switching from one statewide prison dietician to three dieticians spread among different regions. The agency also defended the quality of its meals and said inmates will buy processed food from commissaries regardless of what’s served in cafeterias.
“Providing and serving food in prisons involves more than nutrition and quality,” the agency wrote. “It also involves security, logistics and complying with constitutional and legal requirements.”
The work group also recommended prohibiting “food-related punishments” like serving worse meals as a disciplinary measure. Prison officials said menu substitutions only happen “when certain foods are unavailable,” when there is a lockdown or “equipment failure,” and when uncommon items such as “seasonal farm products” become available.
The report recommends the elimination of the 9% markup on commissary sales through a phased-in approach that would gradually replace that commission revenue with an extra $4 million per year in the state budget.
Prison stores are effectively a “government-mandated monopoly” that skews prices upward, the report says, leading inmates to pay $2.06 for a package of pretzels, $3.70 for a 4.5-oz can of chicken, $31.33 for a bra, 31 cents for a two-pack of aspirin, $9.87 for a three-pack of men’s boxers and $29.44 for a small fan.
“Incarcerated people and families, many of whom cannot afford to pay these commissions, are currently subsidizing the public safety budget through these regressive taxes on end-users,” the report says.
The roughly $3.68 million the prison system takes in each year from commissary markups helps cover the costs of services provided to inmates, prison officials noted, including cable TV, religious services, barbers and beauty shop equipment, appliances, workout equipment, and reentry programs.
“Relying on a taxpayer (general funds) model to replace these funds puts these services at risk when there are significant budget cuts but would still require the VADOC to provide uninterrupted services to the inmate population without adequate funding,” VADOC said in response.
The report also raises concerns about an alleged lack of transparency about the wholesale costs of commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, the contractor that supplies the stores. The work group requested access to a sample list of how much commissary items cost the contractor, but the company said the information was “proprietary” and wouldn’t be shared.
“VADOC is responsible for negotiating prices for commissary items,” the report says. “And while they claim to seek the lowest possible prices, they have a conflict of interest because they receive commission revenue as a percentage of these prices.”
The report recommended a pilot program to inject free-market principles into the prison economy, potentially allowing online retailers like Amazon and Walmart or other commissary providers to compete with the state’s sole contractor.
VADOC said having one vendor reduced the amount of time prison officials have to spend vetting supplies coming into prisons for contraband. The agency said that allowing online retailers to supply prisons creates a new set of issues since those companies may be unfamiliar with the security rules of prison environments. Because anyone can start selling items on Amazon, the agency wrote, staff would have to check to ensure Amazon sellers don’t have a personal connection to their incarcerated customers.
The prison agency said it would explore the possibility of reducing markups on underwear and other basic hygiene products
Phone/video calls and emails
Under current policy, inmates are charged roughly 4 cents per minute for phone calls, with no commission going to the prison. Advocates say those costs can be “prohibitive,” preventing contact between prisoners and loved ones, leading to better outcomes upon release.
“Excessive fees charged to incarcerated people for communicating with the outside world are both predatory and counterproductive, from a corrections standpoint,” said Andy Elders, a work group member who chairs the board of the advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia.
The report recommends giving each inmate at least 120 minutes of free call time per day, maintaining a 1:10 ratio of phones to people in custody, and increasing the number of phone numbers each incarcerated person can call from 15 to 20.
Agency officials insisted they simply don’t have the equipment or staff to allow that much free call time, which they said would disincentive prisoners from spending time learning skills or participating in reentry programs.
“Inmates have and continue to use the communications system to engage in illegal activity, such as the selling, delivery, distribution, and payments involved with drug transactions,” VADOC wrote.
Under the current cost structure, officials said, many prisoners are on the phone “most of the day” and occasionally “extort/bully” other inmates trying to make calls.
Video calls are available to inmates at a similar cost. The workgroup recommended making those calls free. Prison officials raised similar concerns about whether that would work in practice, suggesting the “modest fee” for video visitation is still a cheaper option for many than traveling long distances for in-person visits.
Ingoing and outgoing emails through the prisons’ J-Pay vendor require stamps that cost at least 25 cents per message, with a 5-cent commission going to VADOC for each outgoing message. The workgroup recommended scrapping those commissions, which generate $89,592 annually, and allowing unlimited emails.
“Incarcerated people and families are being charged exorbitant rates to send electronic messages, including additional fees for attachments such as photos, which cannot be received by mail any longer,” the workgroup wrote.
Prison officials disagreed, saying the agency would have to spend more than $5 million to hire extra staff to monitor emails to ensure they aren’t used for things like sexually explicit content or contacting crime victims.
The agency said it will review the report’s recommendations as it works to secure a new contract that will cover phone calls, music, games, and wireless internet. The agency also charges commissions on tablets that allow incarcerated people to listen to music, read news and play games, a system that generated nearly $417,396 in the most recent fiscal year.
With technology like Venmo making it easier than ever to transfer money digitally, the report also aims at fees charged to families for depositing money into inmates’ accounts, ranging from 3% to nearly 24% per transaction.
“In VADOC facilities, the fees for a $300 online deposit are $9.95 while a $25 online deposit will cost $5.95,” the report says. “Effectively, the people who can afford to send the least get charged the most.”
The report recommends directing VADOC to partner with another state agency to develop an in-house system that will make the process cheaper or simply cap processing fees at 3%.
“Payment processing is not complicated, and clearly, many state agencies have figured it out,” the report says.
VADOC cautioned against the General Assembly getting involved in micromanaging the terms of its contracts with vendors. Rewriting the rules, the agency could risk “alienating quality service providers” who understand “the specific security needs of the industry.”
“Fees should be addressed during contract negotiations, not as part of the legislation,” the agency wrote.
Other funding sources
In addition to simply growing the General Assembly-approved prisons budget, the report outlines a few other possible sources of revenue to help make up for lower prison fees.
The non-agency work group members suggested looking at leasing out unused land owned by VADOC and tapping new federal funding meant to expand broadband internet access to “underserved populations.”
The report says that if all the proposed fee cuts were adopted, it would amount to about 2% of VADOC’s $1.4 billion yearly budget.
Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Virginia who served on the work group, said VADOC is resisting reforms due to “institutional inertia and incumbency protection for these vendors.”
“It was disappointing given that the legislature made it clear that they were wanting to see recommendations on how to improve the system,” Weneta said, adding Virginia should at least be able to make sure its prison fees are in line with other states. “We shouldn’t be paying four times what another state is.”
A similar study looks at inmates’ fees in local and regional jails. That report isn’t due until Dec. 1.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Springtime Garden Center owner Ann Orndorff calls upcoming retirement ‘bittersweet’
Her customers say they will be lost without her. She says she will dearly miss her customers and vendors, but it’s time to go.
Ann Orndorff, the owner/operator of the Springtime Garden Center on Warren Avenue in Front Royal, says that after 26 years of daily work—sometimes through the night to tend to new plants under threat of frost—she is ready to slow down, travel, enjoy time with her family and perhaps sign up to foster kittens in need of care before being adopted. Laughing, she said, “I told my son, Colby, that I might become a ‘crazy cat lady’!”
Ann announced on her Facebook page Monday that it was “bittersweet and that she was filled with “a mix of sadness and excitement for retirement.” After running the nursery with her husband, Lamont, since 1996, Ann says it has been more difficult since he died three years ago. Lamont retired from the Pepsi Cola Company, then began working with Ann to build the nursery that they bought from Lamont’s brother and sister-in-law, Ernie and Marguerite Orndorff. She says they always planned to travel after they retired, and she’s sad that he isn’t here to share this next chapter of her life.
For many customers, Springtime Garden Center has been the place to go for all their gardening and seasonal decorating needs, as well as fun times with the family. Linda Cook, a loyal customer for 16 years, said in an email, “They have planted over 50 trees and bushes in my yard and trimmed all my bushes and mulched. This year I had them bring me pies and cakes and vegetables and fruit. I will be lost without them.”
Ann is equally fond of her customers and vendors, whom she says she will miss. She said in a Tuesday interview, “The customers were a blessing! They supported us from day one, and we couldn’t have made a go of it without them. I got to know and care for so many over the years.”
Some of her fondest memories are of the Amish families she met while attending produce auctions in the region. She continued, “I’ve watched their kids grow up over the years—I will definitely miss them!”
It was on one of those Pennsylvania trips that Ann found Miley, one of the nursery’s two resident cats. About five weeks old, the kitten jumped on the produce cart and insisted on staying with Ann. “All of the cats we’ve had over the years have found us” she relayed. “She’s our greeter, and the customers are very fond of her.”
For years, Ann has worked with the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging (SAAA), donating produce for the Meals on Wheels program and when there was a surplus, fresh vegetables for the meal-delivery clients.
Ann also created a “senior tree” at Christmastime, working with the SAAA to identify seniors in need. She said her customers looked forward to participating in the annual project, and once the tree was on display, all the seniors were adopted. A tree for veterans was also set up each year, and all collected presents were taken to the American Legion for distribution.
Ann hopes to see a local business take over the project once she retires. Anyone interested in sponsoring the annual trees should contact her at the nursery at 815 Warren Avenue.
Though the nursery and adjacent house have been placed on the market, the business has not sold. “It’s a great business, Ann said, but it is hard work. You have to work until the work is done—you can’t work eight hours and be done.”
After Lamont died, her family helped her run the business. Son Colby did landscape work for clients and the staff “went above and beyond” to help. “I was blessed. Without the hard work of our staff, I would not have been able to keep the business going or increase the variety of stock we offered. I was truly blessed.”
As the sale of nursery items continues until closing day, November 30, there are discounts: 25% off (cash and carry) on trees, shrubs, perennials, Amish Poly Furniture, and Massarelli Statuary until the inventory is sold. After October 17, equipment, seasonal decorations and fixtures will be sold.
For the first time ever, Ann will not have Christmas trees, wreaths, roping, and poinsettia this Holiday season, though families can still come by and enjoy the Halloween decorations and annual scavenger hunt.
Reflecting on the last 26 years, Ann says there are so many things about running the nursery she’ll remember with fondness, including the customers, the vendors whom she came to know over the years and her dedicated staff. What she won’t miss is the crazy period every April after the annual plants get delivered. She recalled having to get up every hour or two if the temperature was near freezing, to keep the greenhouse warm enough to protect the plants.
Son Colby and daughter-in-law Michella, as well as daughter Amanda and husband Michael, live in the area, as do her two grandsons, Bryce and Christian. Ann says she’ll settle down in the area and enjoy time with her family, as well as make plans for travel.
Springtime Garden Center is located at 815 Warren Avenue, across from Wendy’s Restaurant. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and closed on Sunday.
For offshore wind aspirations to become reality, transmission hurdles must be cleared
President Joe Biden’s administration laid out ambitious additional goals last month to boost offshore wind power generation, one of the American renewable energy industry’s emerging wide open frontiers.
The federal announcements come as coastal states across the country are increasingly setting offshore wind energy targets, seeking to capture not just clean energy but the potentially big economic benefits of their ports serving as hubs for the vessels, blade manufacturing, cables, and other infrastructure needed to get turbines more than 850 feet tall installed miles out at sea.
But amid news releases touting megawatt targets and jobs, there’s been less attention on the challenge of bringing all that electricity ashore and connecting it to a grid that was designed to bring power to the coast, not the other way around.
“It is so exciting to see the goals put forward and it’s a great signal and clear signal to the industry,” said Maddy Urbish, head of government affairs and market strategy for New Jersey at Ørsted North America. The Danish company, a world leader in offshore wind, currently has 5,000 megawatts of projects under development or under construction in U.S. waters.
“So that’s incredibly encouraging and exciting for the industry. When we get down to the challenges we see from the grid it becomes immediately less sexy,” Urbish said.
A sea change
With nearly 95,500 miles of coastline and steady wind resources offshore, developers like Ørsted see vast potential in the U.S. market. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that domestic offshore wind generation potential is roughly equal to double the nation’s total electric demand. What’s more, about 80% of U.S. electric load is in coastal or Great Lakes states near offshore wind resources.
“We’ve significantly increased our workforce here in the U.S. and that’s in direct response to the potential here,” Urbish said. “The U.S. is a key market for Ørsted at this point.”
New Jersey just announced a new 11,000-megawatt offshore wind target, the largest in the country. Virginia’s Dominion Energy is pushing to get its 2,600-megawatt commercial project finished by 2026, and the state wants a total of 5,200 megawatts by 2034. Maryland has approved more than 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity. North Carolina has a goal of 8,000 megawatts by 2040.
Massachusetts is contracting for 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind by 2027. Maine says its initial goal of 5,000 megawatts by 2030 is “not realistic at this point” but still considers offshore wind “one of our state’s largest untapped clean energy resources.” Louisiana, with a large skilled offshore oil and gas workforce that is partially repositioning for offshore wind, aims for 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035 in its most recent climate plan.
And the new Inflation Reduction Act undoes a Trump administration moratorium on federal offshore wind leases in the Southeast, potentially opening up new opportunities for Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida, though the Sunshine State’s potential is seen as limited because of a lack of strong, sustained winds near the coast.
However, getting all that power to electric consumers will require billions in upgrades to the electric grid and a whole lot better regional planning by states and grid operators, experts say.
“Offshore wind is big,” said Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a trade group for large renewable energy and energy storage companies. “When you bring it ashore, it’s gonna have an effect on nearby generation regardless of market structure. They’re the size of nuclear reactors. … So it’s really important to do good studies.”
‘A big job’
Until fairly recently, renewable energy advocates said there had been less emphasis by policymakers and grid managers on transmission infrastructure upgrades and the comprehensive regional planning needed to make mass offshore wind a reality, though the federal government and states are starting to come to grips with the scope of the problem.
“There needs to be a lot more done than what’s being done right now and people are starting to realize that,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer and offshore wind platform lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The integration of this is going to be a big job and something we have to start working on soon. These transmission projects can take longer to build than the plants themselves.”
With relatively small, stand-alone wind projects, it’s often feasible for developers to find their own solutions to interconnection, said Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists who focuses on renewable energy and the electric grid. Indeed, wind developers with projects further along in the pipeline can take advantage of old thermal generation sites — like Ørsted plans to do with the former B.L. England coal-fired power plant in Upper Township, New Jersey, south of Atlantic City — as points of interconnection because of the existing grid infrastructure there.
But with the potential scale of American offshore wind energy and the huge targets proposed by states like New Jersey, project-by-project transmission solutions won’t work.
“Now you talk about 1,000 megawatts at a time. And New Jersey wants 10 of those. The transmission needed to be upscaled on shore is significant and needs to reach further inland,” he said. “The cable you brought to the nearest connection point from water to land is going to run into something that’s going to be inadequate and needs to be upscaled.”
‘Better than nothing’
That means billions of dollars in upgrades will be necessary to accommodate the offshore wind buildout contemplated by state and federal leaders. In Virginia, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, estimates the transmission upgrades required as part of its $10 billion 2,640 megawatt wind installation will be about 16 to 17% of the total project cost, a company spokesman said.
PJM Interconnection, which runs the electric grid in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, estimated that injecting offshore wind generation (it studied scenarios ranging from 6,416 megawatts up to 17,016 megawatts) into the existing onshore transmission system would require anywhere from $627 million in a short-term scenario to as much as $3.2 billion in long-term scenarios, per a study released last year. That study only examined upgrades that would be necessary for existing infrastructure, not any “sea-to-shore or any offshore transmission networks.”
“They do require a fair amount of upgrades to the traditional land-based transmission system,” said Ray DePillo, director of development for offshore wind for PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest utility. “That’s a lot of megawatts to put into a single point or multiple points into the transmission system.”
PSE&G has partnered with Ørsted on Coastal Wind Link, a series of offshore stations that will connect multiple wind farms to the grid at a single onshore point rather than having every offshore wind farm connect using its own cable.
That proposal is among a series of transmission bids New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities will consider under a deal it reached with PJM Interconnection. Generally, PJM would be responsible for planning transmission upgrades and allocating costs to accommodate individual offshore wind generation projects as part of the interconnection process.
But with a giant backlog in PJM’s interconnection queue driven by a flood of new renewable projects and an overhaul underway, New Jersey and PJM negotiated the State Agreement Approach, which “enables a state, or group of states, to propose a project to assist in realizing state public policy requirements as long as the state (or states) agrees to pay all costs of any state-selected build-out.” PJM, in turn, is seeking transmission bids on the state’s behalf in coordination with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. It received more than 80 proposals ranging in cost from $1.2 billion to more than $7 billion, depending on various scenarios, PJM said, though those costs don’t necessarily include onshore upgrades. The board will ultimately decide what gets built.
“New Jersey came to realize that if they wanted to do this large and fast, they had to take the matter into hand,” Jacobs said.
New Jersey ratepayers will shoulder the cost of the transmission upgrades themselves, even though those grid improvements may have broader benefits for reliability beyond the state’s borders.
“This is a good news and bad news story,” Jacobs said. “The benefits from New Jersey doing this will flow beyond New Jersey. … What we’re doing is having the states fill a gap that was not expected and should not need to be done.”
Rob Gramlich, founder and president of consulting firm Grid Strategies, called the solution “highly suboptimal.”
“But I agree with New Jersey that although it’s suboptimal, it’s better than nothing,” he said.
At the heart of the friction is the traditional guiding principle of interconnection, those new generators should pay for the transmission upgrades necessary to connect them to the grid because grid managers like PJM haven’t generally looked for broader benefits to the system, critics say.
That model was tolerable when the new generators were large gas power plants that could be sited close to existing interconnection points and high voltage lines, but not so much now with hundreds of smaller, more diffuse solar and wind projects that are trying to connect to the grid, Gramlich added.
“The flaws of that system are now quite evident to everybody,” he said.
A new proposed rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission aims to quantify better the broader benefits of transmission upgrades, which some renewable energy proponents say could grease the wheels for the buildout required to decarbonize the grid. And the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $100 million specifically earmarked for offshore wind transmission planning, modeling, and analysis.
“The fact of the matter is we need more studies, we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Mahan of the Southern Renewable Energy Association. “The IRA funding is there to help solve some of this problem.”
There are ongoing studies as well.
Melinda Marquis, offshore wind grid integration lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is leading a Department of Energy study expected to be finished next year that will identify optimal interconnection points along the Atlantic coast. It’s one of several seeking answers to how best to incorporate offshore wind into the grid, Marquis said, and states like New York, which is pushing for 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, have done their own studies.
“The way offshore has been deployed in the North Sea, in England, for instance, is the same way the very early offshore wind plants in the U.S. are developing. That is where each offshore wind plant builds one radial connection to shore. … So each developer is picking the cheapest, best place to inject the power,” Marquis said. “There’s a limited number of points of interconnection along the Atlantic.”
Right now, there aren’t many incentives for developers to share interconnection and transmission infrastructure, Marquis said. Her group’s study will quantify costs under various build-out scenarios, compare different transmission technologies, explore implications for grid reliability and examine effects on marine life and fisheries.
“The ocean is really a pretty crowded place,” she said, adding that the study is incorporating data on marine sanctuaries, national wildlife refuges, reefs, seafloor sediment, shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and military areas, among others.
“We hope that the results of our study will be very helpful for the people who make decisions about the way transmission is expanded, and how it is built, and we hope this will lead to a very resilient, reliable grid with a very low cost to the ratepayer that minimizes impact on marine species and the marine environment,” Marquis said.
She noted that representatives from major U.S. utilities and grid operators are participating in the study.
“The Department of Energy really understands this, and they’re funding us to tackle this,” she said.
‘All of the above’
Meanwhile, similar to New Jersey, other states are realizing the importance of taking the lead on transmission planning. New York wants offshore wind projects connecting to shore to be “meshed ready,” which means being able to share sea-to-shore connection infrastructure among different offshore wind plants rather than each one having a separate connection to shore. PJM says it’s talking with other states about how to upgrade transmission to meet its energy goals.
“We have had exploratory discussions with our states to pursue similar goals like NJ, but nothing formalized yet,” Ken Seiler, vice president of planning, said last month, adding that the grid operator is at work on the second phase of a regional wind study “meant to identify regional transmission solutions to offshore wind and all other renewable portfolio development planned for by the states.” PJM’s counterpart in the middle of the country, MISO, which covers an area stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana, says its transmission planning has been all land-based and there are no offshore wind projects in its interconnection queue.
“However, MISO is equipped to study and evaluate any offshore projects that may be submitted in the future,” said Brandon Morris, a spokesman for the organization.
And last month, five New England states, including Maine and New Hampshire, issued a joint “request for information” seeking comments from offshore wind developers, the electric transmission industry, and others “regarding changes and upgrades to the regional electric transmission system needed to integrate renewable energy resources, including but not limited to offshore wind resources, as well as significant other new renewable resources” into the grid.
“I think this happens with all of the above, to use an energy cliche,” said Jacobs. “We will have some of the developers go ahead because they’re impatient and find the opportunities to build their own connections. We will have an institutional approach where we get the federal government and the regional operators to do what they are mandated already to do, which is to plan for a reliable, consumer-friendly open access system. All this will happen because the states will present a credible threat to these institutions that are supposed to be doing it in the first place.”
by Robert Zullo, Virginia Mercury
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A true page turner for new hires: the handbook
The latest hot crime novel just dropped. It’s a real page-turner, and you have it. Your heart pounds, and you want to start flipping pages. There’s just one problem. The book in front of you is the employee handbook. Not exactly a best seller, huh?
Unfortunately, 60 percent of employees skip reading the employee handbook altogether. While reading company rules, regulations and policies aren’t exactly thrilling, understanding all of the above is vital.
Knowing how to use personal days or file for vacations may help you get more R&R when needed. Sometimes days roll over, sometimes, they don’t. Some companies are fine with you taking two weeks off, others may limit vacations to a week. So on and so forth.
The employee handbook can keep you out of hot water as well. Showing up 10 minutes late at your old job may not have been a big deal. But at your new job, that might result in a write-up and a black mark on your record. Likewise, there may be specific instructions for handling company documents, using company vehicles, or whatever else.
Employees, new and old, may be looking to impress their bosses and the organization as a whole. The right moves now could result in a raise or promotion later. By reading the company handbook, you can develop a feel for your organization and its priorities. So before you jump into the latest novel topping the charts, take a dive into the company handbook.
3 reasons to add an island to your kitchen
Islands are increasingly common features in many home kitchens because of their practicality and attractive design. If you don’t already have one, here are three reasons you should consider installing an island in your kitchen.
1. Multifunctionality. Kitchen islands are a great way to maximize your space. For example, an island gives you more counter space and can be used to house appliances like a dishwasher or extra sink. Moreover, you can use the island as a table if you have a small kitchen.
2. Sociability. An island creates a focal point for gathering and engaging with friends and family. Instead of preparing food facing the cabinets and windows, you can work on the island while conversing with your guests.
3. Modern look. Many modern kitchens feature islands. Consequently, installing one in your home will give your space an updated look, undoubtedly adding value to your home.
If you’re considering renovating your kitchen, talk to your contractor about adding an island.