Two months after being shut down, Dominion Energy Virginia's two coal-burning units at the Yorktown power plant have received new life, a life that Dominion and its electric grid manager assure is temporary.
Thanks to an emergency order by the Department of Energy, the two coal-burning units will be available to supply the Peninsula with electricity during "critical situations" this summer.
PJM Interconnections, which manages the electrical grid in 13 states, requested the plants be used to maintain reliability of power on the Peninsula, according to the DOE order.
Secretery of Energy Rick Perry signed the order June 16, immediately allowing operation of the units. The order extends through the hottest months of the year and until Sept. 14. Approaching that date, PJM may request renewal of the order, and the Department of Energy will evaluate the request.
Dominion Energy was legally barred from running the plants beginning in April because of federal standards limiting emissions of mercury and toxic acidic gases. It was previously under special permission to keep the units on standby to reduce the risk of blackouts. Dominion Energy spokeswoman Bonita Harris said the plants were maintained in case they would be allowed back in use to supply emergency power. She called the order an extension of the previous permits that allowed the units to run.
Ray Dotter, a PJM spokesman, said the plants would be fired up on a "very limited basis ... and only when things are critical."
Harris emphasized that the units were a "Band-Aid" and the company's only avenue to ensure against blackouts. She said even if the order is not renewed, maintenance of the two plants was likely to continue as a precaution until a permanent power supply to the Peninsula is in place.
Coal remains the country's largest fuel source, and other Dominion Energy facilities use coal in compliance with environmental standards, Harris said. She added that Dominion Energy is pushing to reduce coal dependency and increase use of renewable energy sources to provide cleaner service, regardless of potential changes to regulations on coal and other fossil fuels. "We're focused on getting cleaner energy to our customers," she said.
Powering the Peninsula has been a hot topic for years, swirling around the planned shutdown of the Yorktown power plants and the solution proposed by Dominion Energy.
The proposed 500-kilovolt Surry-Skiffes Creek power line would run across the James River, connecting the Surry power station to James City County. Opponents of the project have said the lines would diminish the views associated with historic Jamestowne and accused Dominion Energy of overstating the risk of power outages on the Peninsula and ignoring alternative solutions for powering the area.
On its website, Dominion Energy insists the power line project is the "least-cost option for customers" and has "the least impact on the environment and historic and cultural resources." The company has pledged $90 million to mitigate the effects of the project as part of a memorandum of agreement approved by Dominion Energy, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Dominion was granted a conditional permit for the project and is awaiting a permit approval from the Virginia Marine Resource Commission and the Department of Environmental Quality. The energy company must also receive approval to build a switching station from the James City County Board of Supervisors.
The DOE order comes on the heels of Perry directing his department to conduct a study of the electric grid, with an emphasis on recent coal and nuclear plant closures and if environmental policies may be driving them. That action is seen as an indicator that the Trump administration does not believe the grid can support a quick, widespread shift toward renewable energy, as some prominent scientists have suggested, according to The Washington Post.
A 2015 study by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues argued that the United States could be powered entirely by clean energy sources by 2055, exciting renewable energy proponents like Sen. Bernie Sanders and environmental groups, according to the Post.
Jacobson's work has always been contentious and has come under scrutiny, with at least 21 researchers publishing papers discounting Jacobson's findings because of invalid modeling and inadequately supported assumptions. Jacobson has stood by his conclusion, leading to what the Post calls "a bitter scientific debate."
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.