Dominion Virginia Power faces significant risks in all of its options for generating enough electricity to meet growing demand while reducing carbon emissions during the next 15 years.
But one thing is clear as the state’s largest utility weighs new solar-, nuclear- and wind-power options to comply with upcoming federal regulations for carbon reduction called the Clean Power Plan: Its reliance on natural gas will grow, which adds to the case for building the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“In order to meet the Clean Power Plan requirements and the demands of our customers, you’re going to need natural gas,” said Robert Thomas, director of energy market analysis with Dominion. “Even with renewables, you have to have natural gas as a bridge fuel.”
Solar, nuclear and wind power all pose their own risks for Dominion, according to a required annual 15-year forecast submitted this week to the State Corporation Commission. The utility for the first time did not specify which plan for the future it prefers.
“We’re in a transition period,” said Thomas Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for Dominion. “We think we’ll be able to provide more clarity as to our preferred plan next year.”
In the forecast, known as Integrated Resource Plan and filed with the SCC, Dominion presents a hypothetical lowest-cost plan that wouldn’t meet federal regulations and details how much more it would cost to move forward with four other options that would both meet expected demand increases and comply with the expected carbon rules.
Three of the plans would result in retirements of coal capacity, including units three and four of the Chesterfield Power Station, the utility’s largest coal-fired generating plant, along with two more in Mecklenburg County and one in York County.
» The cheapest alternative involves adding 4,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar, which would require land space almost as large as the city of Richmond and cost an additional $4.3 billion. The plan also calls for additional natural gas generation as a backup for peak periods, since solar energy isn’t always reliable and currently can’t be stored.
» Converting coal plants to use natural gas for one-quarter of their electricity production (co-firing plants) while also ramping up solar and natural gas would cost about $5 billion more but would increase even further the company’s reliance on natural gas.
» Adding a third nuclear reactor at the North Anna plant in Louisa County would reduce carbon emissions more than any other option, but at $7.2 billion it would cost about 67 percent more than the solar option.
» Focusing on offshore wind would cost $15.3 billion, a price that all but takes that plan off the table unless Dominion can find a way to reduce costs. The company recently delayed plans to install offshore turbines as a test case when the price was nearly double the company’s $230 million estimate.
Dominion weighs each of the options based on growing demand and reliability as well as cost.
“Utility-scale solar looks very good to us. It’s the lowest-cost deal, but there’s a lot of analysis to be done, so it’s not a done deal yet,” Wohlfarth said.
Environmental groups have called on Dominion to rely on renewable energy such as solar and wind power to meet the growth in demand, which is expected to be about 1.5 percent per year.
“If Dominion were looking out for the best interests of Virginians, it would prioritize aggressive investments in solar, energy efficiency and offshore wind and stop doubling down on dirty fracked gas,” said Mike Tidwell, director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Wohlfarth said getting customers to reduce electricity use as part of an energy-efficiency plan has proved challenging.
Because wind energy is reliable only 38 percent of the time and solar panels work about 22 percent of the time, another source has to be available to pick up the slack during peak times, he said. And with federal regulations basically ruling out new coal plants, natural gas and nuclear power are the company’s only options, he said.
“Renewable energy is very important, but it is not the only answer,” he said. “You have to have natural gas.”
Dominion continues to expand its natural gas production while working to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The company calls natural gas a “bridge” fuel to meet demand during the transition to cleaner sources. It’s building a gas-fired plant in Brunswick County and this week asked the SCC to approve another one in Greensville County.
The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would bring natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina, increasing reliability and cost stability for the fuel. The pipeline has been opposed by environmental groups and some Virginia landowners who don’t want it to run through their property.
A coalition of more than 100 business, industry and labor groups – more than 50 of them in Virginia – has formed a group called EnergySure to support the pipeline’s construction.
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will provide more energy to put the commonwealth on the map for businesses looking to expand,” said Virginia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Barry E. DuVal. “We also believe it can be done in a way that protects the environment.”
JOHN RAMSEY |
Richmond Times-Dispatch |
Posted: Friday, July 3, 2015