Dominion Virginia Power is warning of 80 days of blackouts a year beginning in 2017 if it doesn't win Army Corps of Engineers approval for its controversial James River power line — new data that it aired Thursday as it sought support for the line from the Peninsula Airport Commission.
Opponents say the company's assumptions about regulatory demands to close two coal-burning generating units at Yorktown are mistaken, and that its forecasts about power demand on the Peninsula are overstated.
Dominion says it will have to close the Yorktown units in April 2017, when the last possible exemption from air pollution standards expires.
If it doesn't have a new 500,000-volt line in place from Surry to Skiffes Creek by then, the Peninsula could face 80 days of blackouts a year, at times when 85 degree-plus summer heat or winter cold snaps send demand for power soaring, Skiffes Creek project manager Wade Briggs told the commission.
He appeared with former Newport News Mayor Joe Frank, who said he teamed up with Dominion two weeks ago to try to line up local support for the line, which is opposed by a group of James City County residents, historic preservation groups, environmentalists and James City County's government.
"We want to say, this is urgent, and there is a fix," Frank said.
Letter of support
Frank asked the commission to send a letter of support to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that would issue a permit for construction work across the river and the wetlands on either side. Frank said Dominion is paying him his usual hourly rate, but declined to say what that is.
Briggs said his forecast of 80 blackout days a year is based on actual 2014 electric consumption figures and computer simulations of loads on various segments of wires and equipment if the two Yorktown coal-fired generating units had not be operating.
Those plants are key to why Dominion says the region faces a power crisis in 2017. The units violate 2011 Environmental Protection Agency standards for emission of mercury, acid gases and other toxic compounds. They now operate under a state-granted one-year exemption that expires in April 2016. Dominion says it will ask for another one-year extension, but adds that is the most it can get.
Opponents of the line dispute that.
"As long as Yorktown is running, Briggs' dire scenario of blackouts is moot," said Margaret Nelson Fowler, one of the founders of the Save the James Alliance that opposes the Skiffes Creek line.
She said it would be unprecedented for regulators to force the shutdown of Yorktown.
Fowler said a 2011 policy statement from the EPA notes that if it takes longer than 2016 to comply with the toxic standards, the agency will consider what to do on a case-by-case basis.
Briggs says the case-by-case language refers to a grant of an additional year beyond the current exemption.
He's worried because it will take at least 20 months to build the line across the James River. If the work doesn't start in August, it can't be completed by the time the Yorktown units shut down.
Impact of proposed line
And it can't start unless the Corps of Engineers approves. Earlier this month, the Corps announced that it was opening a public comment period to hear concerns about the impact of the proposed line on historic resources.
The Corps is consulting with other agencies on other regulatory concerns, including impact on endangered species, wetlands and ship and barge traffic on the river, before opening those up for public comment as well. There is no timeline for getting the comments in, reviewing them, and reaching a decision.
Dominion also needs James City County, which opposes the line, to approve a land-use permit allowing it to build a switching station to connect the line to the rest of the company's system on the Peninsula.
Frank said he might eventually ask the commission to write to James City County's supervisors.
Frank said he had convinced Newport News Shipbuilding, Patrick Henry Mall, Peninsula NOW, a civic group of area chief executive offices, and York County to write letters to the Corps supporting the project.
Newport News Shipbuilding president Matt Mulherin wrote in support "given that the shipyard depends on reliable electrical power to support employment and build warships for the U.S. Navy," said spokeswoman Christie Miller.
York County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Shepperd said his county's letter was a request for the Corps to make a decision one way or the other soon, rather than a letter of support for the line itself.
"We don't want them to be dallying," he said. He said the county wanted to be sure Dominion has enough time to come up with a plan to supply the Peninsula with enough power when the Yorktown units close.
When the units close, the Peninsula will have to rely on only two sets of transmission lines that now link it to Dominion's other power plants for almost all its power.
Overload on lines
The danger is that problems anywhere along any of those transmission lines, whether in the wires themselves or the equipment tying them to the lower-voltage lines that serve customers, could mean overloads on the remaining lines, Curtis said.
Those overloads, in turn, could trigger a domino effect of overloads elsewhere in the state, and possibly into North Carolina, according to forecasts by Dominion and the operator of the regional power grid, PJM Interconnection.
"Again, Dominion distorts the facts," Fowler said. She said Dominion's power forecasts are based on statewide economic and population growth trends, and overstate demand on the Peninsula.
During a visit with the Daily Press editorial board this week, she said a more realistic growth forecast means the Peninsula's needs could be met by a lower-voltage connection than the one Dominion is proposing, and that the lower voltage line could go underground.
Fowler said the towers and wires Dominion wants to erect across the James River will spoil a historic icon, where the view remains what John Smith saw in 1607 when the Jamestown settlers landed.
"This is where democracy was born," she said. "Jamestown is truly the first Ellis Island. ... What happened here must be preserved."
Airport tree thinning planned
The Peninsula Airport Commission hopes to start an 18- to 24-month effort to thin some of the woods around Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
The commission approved an agreement giving management of the work to ClearWater Forestry Services.
The work includes selective cutting of trees from about 28 acres of woods north of the airport, below the approach paths to its runways, as well as on three acres along its security fence.
The aim is to ensure aircraft get a clear view of the airport, to give security people a better view of the fence, and to let more light into the woods so that smaller trees can flourish.
The plan is to come back every three to five years to cut a few more trees when they reach the point that they block views or hinder other trees' growth.
ClearWater will be paid a 6 percent fee. The rest of the proceeds – basically, what loggers pay the airport for the trees they cut under ClearWater's supervision — will go the airport commission itself.
The commission also approved an increase in landing fees, to $1.10 per 1,000 pounds from 80 cents for airlines that regularly serve it and to $2.40 from $2.10 for charter services. The fees do not apply to general aviation planes.
It approved a two-year extension, to 2026, of its lease to Atlantic Aviation so that the fixed base operator can recoup the cost of a more than $600,000 investment in its facility.
The commission also approved a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that forecasts a 1.1 percent drop in revenue, to $7.5 million, and a 1.5 percent decline in spending, to $7.4 million.
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.