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Virginia's Electric Future


Last month, Dominion Virginia Power offered its annual report to the state – explaining how it plans to supply affordable and reliable energy over the next 15 years.  Sandy Hausman reports that by 2030 this state will be getting less than 10% of its power from renewables and might be constructing another nuclear reactor.

Dominion came up with four possible scenarios for the future – each putting emphasis on a different fuel source.  The cheapest was the solar plan, but Senior Vice President Tom Wohlfarth says the company would have to cover a lot of land.

“You’re talking about 4,000 megawatts, that’s 32,000 acres, which is roughly an area about the size of the city of Richmond.”

Solar sites would be spread across the state in relatively flat areas close to places where they could connect to the grid. Dominion has identified dozens of possibilities, but Wohlfarth admits the solar plan would only get 6% of the state’s power from the sun.  Sixty percent of our electricity would come from burning gas and coal!

Dominion is currently building a plant in Maryland to liquefy and export gas, prompting some to wonder if the price of that fuel might spike at home.  Wohlfarth doesn’t think so, because he says gas is so abundant.

The wind plan – dubbed the most expensive – envisions 8% of our energy coming from solar panels and offshore turbines by 2030.  That baffles David Carr, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  He notes Virginia has ideal conditions for offshore wind, and Rhode Island is already building a wind park.

“The Block Island project has been under construction this summer," Carr says. "They’ve built the foundations.  They’re going to put the turbines up next summer, and the project will be running next year.”

Dominion knows that but points out that people on Block Island are now generating power from diesel fuel – spending 37 cents a kilowatt hour, compared with Dominion’s current charge of 11 cents.

Which brings us to the nuclear option – about as expensive, Wohlfarth says, as offshore wind.  The advantage is that nuclear is more reliable.

“You turn the keys, and the nuclear power plant starts operating, and you’re adding zero carbon, but you’re adding a lot of megawatt hours,” he says.

Which explains why Dave Carr at the Southern Environmental Law Center sees Dominion spending big bucks to plan a third nuclear reactor at North Anna – and a pittance to plan offshore wind. 

“You can just look at the dollar flow and see that Dominion is spending over $500 million on the third reactor at North Anna," he says.  "They’ve spent $5-10 million on offshore wind.”

Some environmentalists wish the utility would put greater emphasis on conservation.  Consultant Mycle Schneider, for example, argues demand for electricity is going down in Europe.

“We see now electricity consumption actually declining for several years in a row, pretty similar to the United States where the consumption peaked already a few years ago as well,” Schneider says.

But Wohlfarth figures demand for power in Virginia will rise more than one percent per year, in part because energy-intensive data centers love to locate in the northern part of this state because of Dominion's relatively low charges and proximity to the federal government.

The bottom line – Dominion sees no more than 8% of its power coming from renewable sources by 2030, and nuclear remains a real option in spite of what happened at Fukishima and, more recently, an underground fire that some feared might threaten a nuclear waste storage facility in St. Louis.  Public safety aside, consultant Mycle Schneider raises some other issues for Dominion to consider.  We’ll hear from him in our next report. 

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