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Dominion’s proposed Chesterfield gas plant draws opposition

A group of people stand outside holding signs with messages against a proposed natural gas power plant
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
Activists and Chesterfield County residents stand outside Bellwood Elementary School on Tuesday to protest a planned Dominion Energy natural gas power plant.

Environmental activists say the plant threatens zero-emissions requirements set to take effect in 2045.

Dozens of activists and Chesterfield County residents attended a Dominion Energy open house at Bellwood Elementary School on Tuesday to discuss a planned natural gas power plant in the county.

Dominion revived its proposal for the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center this month. The company said it would serve as a “peaker” — a facility only intended to generate electricity during high-demand hours. Peakers generally produce power at times of day when many people use large amounts of electricity at once — like when lights and appliances are in use around dinnertime — or longer periods of high demand brought on by extreme weather.

The plant would include four natural gas turbines capable of generating 1,000 MW of electricity at maximum output, powering up to 250,000 homes. Dominion said the project could create more than 200 jobs during construction and 35 long-term positions — plus generate $142.6 million in county tax revenue over 36 years. The company is still seeking permits from Chesterfield and state regulators, but estimated the plant will be operational in 2027.

The proposal has received criticism from environmentalists, who have claimed the plant would threaten the state’s goal of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from its two biggest utilities by 2050. The Virginia Clean Economy Act — passed by lawmakers in 2020 — directs Dominion to reach that milestone by 2045, though the utility is allowed to petition state regulators to keep a fossil fuel plant open beyond that deadline if it is deemed essential for reliability.

Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton said the company is committed to developing a diverse energy mix, and added it has a wide range of solar projects operating, planned or in development. According to the company’s latest 15-year nonbinding outlook, it plans to install up to 11,094 MW of potential peak solar generation by 2038.

“The Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center goes hand-in-hand with our renewable energy buildout for an all-of-the-above, diverse fuel mix that does keep the lights on for our customers,” Slayton said.

People stand around and talk in a large cinder block room with sea creatures painted on the walls
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
People attend a Tuesday open house in Chesterfield County held by Dominion Energy.

The company pointed to 2022’s Winter Storm Elliott, which caused outages and threatened power reserves across the East Coast during December, as a reason to expand natural gas generation. Slayton said in a long-term, high-demand event like that, natural gas generators can respond quickly and don’t have the same limits as a storage system.

“It really comes into play and is really helpful during those periods of extreme temperatures, whether it’s hot, whether it’s cold,” he said. “Or during periods when other facilities aren’t generating as well — like solar on a cloudy day.”

The company has also referenced skyrocketing demand, mostly due to data centers, as a reason for continuing to invest in natural gas generation.

Victoria Higgins, Virginia director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the company could build renewable storage to meet the same reliability needs, potentially at a lower cost.

“The other advantage of solar storage is that it allows us to meet our climate deadlines — it allows us to preserve a stable, healthy future for future generations,” Higgins said.

She argued natural gas infrastructure isn’t immune to weather, either.

PJM, the regional transmission organization which oversees the electrical grid in Virginia and a dozen other states, reported that almost one-quarter of its expected power supply was offline on Dec. 24, 2022, during Elliott. More than 60 percent of offline facilities were gas-powered and could not produce electricity due to equipment failures or fuel shortages.

Researchers from the pro-renewables Rocky Mountain Institute have said that improved transmission of wind energy — which was abundant during the storm — could have lessened impacts to regional grids.

A computer rendering of an industrial plant in a forested setting
Dominion Energy
A rendering of the proposed Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center natural gas power plant.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans have until 2030 to drastically reduce carbon emissions and until 2050 to stop emitting altogether in order to avoid severe consequences of climate change.

Higgins said she was concerned the plant could become a stranded asset if it's abandoned at the VCEA deadline, effectively raising the cost on ratepayers to cover a facility that doesn’t meet its full potential. She’s also concerned Dominion will petition the state to keep the plant open past 2045, making it “emblematic of an intention to not actually meet the goals of the Clean Economy Act."

Gas for the site will be transported through “Transco, EGTS, Cove Point, and/or Transcanada interstate pipelines and will be delivered to the site via two of Virginia’s local distribution companies — Columbia Gas of Virginia (CGV) and Virginia Natural Gas (VNG),” according to an email from Slayton.

Dominion said it does not yet have a cost estimate for the plant.

Updated: June 29, 2023 at 9:06 AM EDT
June 29: Dominion Energy is a VPM donor.
Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.