Where will the region's power company generate the electricity it hopes to soon be sending across the James River on a proposed new set of electrical towers?
Answer: Many different power plants, all consolidated at the Surry switchyard in Surry County.
As envisioned, the proposed transmission line — which Dominion Virginia Power says it needs to deliver adequate electricity to the Peninsula — would run from the Surry switchyard, past Hog Island, over more than 3 miles of water, and into James City County.
And the Surry switchyard gets its electron feed not just from the adjacent Surry Nuclear Power Station, but from many other power plants as well.
"I want to make it clear it's not the Surry Nuclear Power Plant that's the source of the energy," Scott Hathaway, Dominion's vice president of electric transmission, said at a September meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other interested parties.
The nuclear power plant, he said, "is a nice contributor to the source of the energy."
"We've got many, many transmission lines, high-voltage transmission lines that come into that switchyard, one of which happens to be (the nuclear power station)," Hathaway said at that meeting, according to a transcript.
But Margaret Nelson Fowler, a founding member of the Save the James Alliance — a group opposing the electrical tower project — says the distinction between the plant and the switchyard is an important one.
She asserts that the fact the transmission line would be directly tied to the switchyard — where the electricity is aggregated — and not the generation point itself means the power line can be moved to a less sensitive pathway to avoid historic impacts.
"It stretches credulity to think that this is the only viable, cost-effective, reliable path for bringing power onto the Peninsula," Fowler said. The fact the electricity would flow from the switchyard and not the power plant "makes it even more unjustifiable that they're willing to damage this historic section of river."
Fowler points out that Dominion's website says a power plant in Brunswick County — in the middle of Virginia — will "help replace" electricity the Peninsula will soon lose with forthcoming shutdowns at the Yorktown Power Plant. Since much of the power is coming from outside the region, Fowler contends, the aggregation point isn't set in stone.
Dominion, Virginia's largest electricity provider, wants to build a new high-voltage transmission line across the James River — from Surry County to James City County and beyond — to provide the Peninsula with a new energy source.
Saying it picked the "least impactful" route it could, Dominion says the new line is sorely needed to make up for forthcoming shutdowns of Yorktown's coal-fired plants because of stringent new federal environmental regulations.
But James City County and historic preservationists are fighting the proposal, contending it will destroy the pristine vistas that Capt. John Smith and the first English settlers saw when they sailed the James in early 1607.
They assert that the towers — some nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty — will damage the view from the Colonial Parkway, the tip of Jamestown Island and Carter's Grove Plantation.
When told of Fowler's contention that the proposed route should be changed, Kevin Curtis, Dominion Virginia Power's director of transmission planning, asserted it's crucial to run the lines from the Surry switchyard. That would be the case, he said, even if the Surry power plant didn't exist.
A large switchyard such as the one in Surry — with multiple electrical feeds coming in and out — would not be easy to recreate, he said.
"It's not as simple as moving the lines south and dropping it into the system," Curtis said. "You'd have to recreate a Surry switching center somewhere else, and have it all funneled ... where we can have the resources combined to have the same functionality."
And just like a new highway project impacts everything in its path with things such as HOV lanes and new interchanges, Curtis said, "I can't even wrap my head around all the impacts ... of having to try to recreate something like that that already exists."
Curtis said the nuclear power plant, even if it were isolated and serving the Peninsula alone, "would be nowhere near enough to adequately serve the load" here, Curtis said. That's why switchyards — which amass electricity from multiple sources and send it out as needed — are so crucial to a reliable electrical grid, he said.
The State Corporation Commission signed off on Dominion's proposal in November 2013, saying the Peninsula's need for electricity is real and that the towers' impact on historic assets is "reasonable" — several miles from the Colonial Parkway and Jamestown Island and "blending in" with existing on-shore development.
But opponents appealed, asking the Virginia Supreme Court to reverse the SCC's approval and arguing that alternatives haven't been fully considered. A court decision is expected next month. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers, which also must sign off on the project, is examining the proposal.
Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749