Dominion proposes huge expansion of solar plants

Politicians may dither and lobbyists clash over carbon emissions and climate, but Dominion Virginia Power says its customers and a sharp drop in the price of solar panels are sending a clear signal — and the result is a dramatic increase in its plans to build solar power plants.

Dominion’s latest long-term plan, filed Monday with the State Corporation Commission, calls for an eightfold increase in its solar plants over the next 15 years. It would be a huge shift for a power company frequently criticized by environmentalists in recent years for dragging its heels on renewable energy and conservation.

But Dominion’s plan also calls for more natural gas plants and depends on completion of a controversial pipeline running through the state from West Virginia to North Carolina, with a spur to South Hampton Roads, as well as a license renewal for its Surry and North Anna nuclear power plants to keep them in operation past 2052. Environmental groups have said they dislike both ideas.

“The combination of solar, natural gas and nuclear looks to be the sweet spot in terms of cost, reliability and environment,” Paul Koonce, the top executive at Dominion’s electric-generating operation.

He said the shift toward building more solar plants makes better economic sense now, thanks to a roughly 50 percent drop in the cost of solar panels in recent years. That drop is due in part to tax credits and other subsidies intended to encourage renewable energy.

Virginians have also been pushing for more renewable energy, Dominion Virginia Power chief executive officer Robert M. Blue said.

But Dominion’s plan assumes faster growth in demand for electricity power than does PJM Interconnection, the operator of the 13-state North Carolina-to-Illinois power grid Virginia is plugged into, said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center who follows energy issues for the nonprofit group. Dominion’s forecast says Virginia’s electricity use will be about 1,000 megawatts higher than the PJM predicts, the company’s filing with the SCC shows.

“I’m still trying to digest, but the first question is, do we really need more power plants? ... If there’s no need for more natural gas plants, there’s no need for the pipeline,” Cleveland said. “And Dominion’s already been building natural gas plants like crazy.”

Still, he added, it is commendable that Dominion’s new plan recognizes the changing economy of solar power.

“Dominion’s actions don’t match its words when it comes to promoting renewable energy,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

“Despite the fanfare, this does not appear to be a sharp change from what we have seen in the past,” she said. In a statement, the Sierra Club said the increase in solar power pales in comparison to Dominion’s in natural gas since 2010 and its plans for more gas generation in the future.

Dominion’s complete plan involves eight options, but all call for:

  • adding 2,800 megawatts of solar-powered generating facilities by 2032 to the 400 megawatts Dominion now operates, bringing the total to 3,200 megawatts, enough to power 800,000 homes. The company says it would continuing adding solar plants after 2032, bringing its total to 5,200 megawatts, or enough to power 1.3 million homes by 2042.
  • signing long-term contracts for 990 megawatts of solar-generated electricity with independent generating operations.
  • adding 1,374 megawatts of new natural gas-fired generating units by 2032, for a 17 percent increase over what it owns now.
  • launching energy conservation programs that would cut demand by about 426 megawatts during peak use periods.
  • running two wind turbines off the Virginia Beach shore by 2021 to test the idea of developing a 12-megawatt wind energy project, once the company and its partners can find cost savings.
  • filing an application in 2019 to extend Surry’s license by another 20 years to 2052, to be followed by a similar application for its North Anna nuclear station.

The plan also calls for retiring the oil-fired generator at Yorktown by 2022, just as last year’s did when it proposed a one-year reprieve for the 43-year-old plant. The company shut down its two coal units at Yorktown last month because they cannot meet EPA standards limiting mercury and toxic gas emissions. EPA limitations on toxic emissions mean the company can run the Yorktown oil unit for only 29 days a year.

In its filing with the commission, Dominion said its plan recognizes what it describes as extreme uncertainty about regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court has frozen implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and an appeals court is reviewing a challenge to its legality. President Donald Trump has ordered the EPA to review the plan to determine whether to revise it or withdraw it.

But Koonce said it seems clear that pressure to reduce carbon emissions will continue.

Because of that uncertainty, Dominion said it does not have a preference among the eight plans, which make different assumptions about the company’s activities buying and selling electricity as well as using different models for analyzing costs and measuring benefits in terms of rates and carbon emissions.

Only one of the eight include construction of a third nuclear unit at North Anna, based on the potential retirement of six coal-fired units elsewhere in Dominion’s system. Dominion is still evaluating this project, which critics have said could cost nearly $20 billion and would impose an unreasonable burden on rate-payers.

Dominion’s plan forecasts a 1.3 percent a year increase in peak energy demand. Based on forecast power use and the reserve margin required by the manager of the North Carolina-to-Illinois power grid, the company’s power plants would begin to fall short in 2022, the filing shows.

“Our customers want less carbon emissions and so do we,” Blue said.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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