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Piecing Together Virginia's Energy Future

AP Photo / Steve Helber

Last week, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed eleven bills that promote the use of renewable energy – solar and wind power – but the latest plans from Dominion Virginia Power suggest on-going reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear plants. Sandy Hausman reports on why the company is moving slowly on green energy and what environmentalists wish the state’s largest utility would do. 

By law, Dominion must produce an annual report on how it will supply energy over the next 15 years, and when it unveiled the latest plan, spokesman David Botkins put a spotlight on solar. 

“With the additional solar that we’re talking about, it can reduce the carbon footprint of our customers by as much as 25% over the next eight years, so that’s a lot of solar. That’s 5,200 megawatts. That would be enough electricity, Sandy, to power 1.3 million homes.”

You might expect that news to thrill environmentalists, but at the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, Ivy Main was not impressed.

“The amount of solar they’re proposing sounds like a large number but actually isn’t. By the time we come to the end of the 15-year planning process, it’ll be no more than 10% of our total electricity supply.”

Dominion’s David Botkins said it would be risky for the state to move too quickly into solar power or wind.

“SolarIt is something that gets put onto the grid when the sun is shining. If it’s not, then it’s not going onto the grid, so it can create an imbalance on the grid system, so it’s very important to have strong, resilient grid that’s in a position to handle that.”

And we do says the Sierra Club’s Ivy Main.

“PJM, which is the grid that includes Virginia, they’ve done analyses that shows they could handle 30% renewable energy now.”

She says this state has a great way to store power for rainy days. When the sun is shining, the energy produced could be used to pump water into an elevated reservoir in Bath County. When Dominion needs power, it can open the flood gates, spilling water over a dam to generate electricity.

“Dominion’s got 2,000 megawatts of storage there, and what we’re seeing in other states is they’re starting to use battery storage, and I think especially as we’re going into some of these out years, battery storage is going to be so much cheaper.”

The amount of solar they're proposing sounds like a large number but actually isn't. By the time we come to the end of the 15-year planning process it'll be no more than 10% of our total electrical supply.

David Botkins says Dominion will back-up solar power using plants that burn natural gas. Today, the company generates about a quarter of its power by burning coal, but Botkins says that number will fall over the next 15 years.

“Natural gas is certainly very, very price competitive, more so than coal.”

And even with President Trump threatening to undo the Clean Power Plan that was designed to cut carbon pollution, Ivy Main says utilities like Dominion are not planning on going back to coal.

“Administrations change every four years. Most of the utilities in the U.S. are assuming that we are going to have some kind of carbon regulation, and they’re planning for that. They know which way the wind is blowing on that one.

Which brings us to another criticism from the environmental community. The plan projects only a couple of small demonstration projects for offshore wind – a source the company says is still too expensive.  Instead, the 15-year plan relies heavily on nuclear plants.

“You know the real workhorse of our fleet now are our nuclear power stations that are generating about 34% of our overall mix.”

Botkins says the company will ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to relicense those plants built 37 to 45 years ago. Ivy Main says the facilities are expensive to maintain, and we shouldn’t even consider building a new reactor.

“It would be the most expensive nuclear plant in the world, and what we’re seeing in Georgia and South Carolina where they are building these nuclear plants – they are way behind schedule, way over budget, the utilities are considering whether it even makes sense to finish the plants.” 

But a bill approved by state lawmakers allows Dominion to pass planning costs on to customers, and David Botkins says another nuclear reactor is still on the drawing board.

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