Peninsula residents and businesses could face brownouts or rolling blackouts early in 2017 if Dominion Virginia Power can't get started on a controversial transmission line across the James River by the end of the summer, company officials warned the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month.
That could happen even if the utility gets permission from environmental regulators to keep its coal-fired generating plants at Yorktown running into 2017, the company said.
"We are running perilously close to an unacceptable service reliability risk that is unprecedented in the modern era here in Virginia," project manager Wade F. Briggs wrote in a March 6 letter to the Corps of Engineers.
Dominion posted the letter online after the Daily Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Corps of Engineers seeking recent communications about the project.
If the Corps doesn't clear the way for construction of the James River power line between Surry County and Skiffes Creek in James City County by Aug. 1, "We would need to implement load shed plans in North Hampton Roads which would be unacceptable to everyone concerned," Briggs wrote.
"Load shed" is engineering jargon for a plan to automatically reduce the amount of electricity flowing along power lines, or to cut power off completely. Dominion has used the term "North Hampton Roads" to describe an area stretching from Hampton and Newport News west to Charles City County and north to King and Queen County and the Middle Peninsula.
The aim of such automatic brownouts and rolling blackouts is to avoid overloading lines and safety equipment when the electricity customers are pulling in outstrips the ability of a power company to supply it.
Such overloads are what set off the August 2003 blackout that cut power to 55 million people from Massachusetts to Ontario. In 2011, Texas saw rolling blackouts when electric use peaked during a cold snap, exceeding what power plants and transmission lines could supply.
Dominion reported record electricity usage in Virginia during February's cold weather, and said an overload may have caused a blackout that affected several hundred customers in Hampton.
For the Peninsula, Dominion says its problem is that it would take 16 to 17 months to build the $155 million Skiffes Creek line. Starting in August means the line would not carry power to the Peninsula before sometime in December 2016.
Any later start means the line might not be open before the power company has to begin shutting down the Yorktown coal units in January or February of 2017 – assuming it gets an extension from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its current exemption from air quality standards for emissions of mercury and other toxic material.
Opponents say the steel towers that would carry the line across the James River — nearly as tall as the Statute of Liberty — will hurt local tourism and forever spoil the pristine vistas the first English settlers saw when they sailed to Jamestown four centuries ago.
Many believe Dominion is scare-mongering. Some say the company could meet the Peninsula's power needs by routing the line along a different path, some say burying the lines might be an alternative, while some have suggested Dominion could simply keep the Yorktown plant operating, even if it violates the new emissions standards and simply pay the fine.
In a public notice to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Dominion said it planned to seek regulatory approval to keep the Yorktown plants running a little longer.
It had planned to shut them at the end of next year, saying it would cost too much to fit the emission control equipment required to meet new Environmental Protection Agency standards for release of mercury and other toxic material into the air.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has granted the company a temporary exemption from the standards through April 2016, allowing the coal units to continue operating. The Yorktown plant also has an oil-burning generating unit that Dominion plans to keep in operation.
The company has argued for years that it needs the line because it has no other way to deliver enough power to the Peninsula.
Even before new federal regulations led the company to decide to close the Yorktown coal units, its studies showed there weren't enough power plants on the Peninsula or lines coming in to support likely demand for electricity by 2019.
The State Corporation Commission, which regulates power companies' rates and ability to ensure reliable service, has approved the new line. Opponents have appealed its decision to the state Supreme Court, which has not yet released a decision.
Asked about Briggs' letter to the Corps and the notice to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Dominion spokesman David Botkins said, "Any further delay in approvals on this crucial project could result in dire electric reliability consequences … We have done everything within our control to move this project forward."
He said delaying the line could have serious economic impact across the Peninsula region, including businesses, hospitals, emergency centers, military installations, schools and homes.
Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535.