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State Democrats oppose Chesterfield County gas plant

Sen Hashmi listens
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D–Chesterfield, listens during a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Dominion Energy says the plant is necessary to respond to higher electrical demand.

Several Central Virginia Democratic legislators signed an open letter last week opposing the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, a proposed natural gas plant that would be located in Chester. The project has drawn opposition from residents and environmental groups.

Dominion Energy said the plant is necessary to respond to periods of high electrical demand as energy use in the commonwealth rises. According to PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that oversees the electric grid in 13 states and Washington, D.C., Dominion’s peak demand will double by 2040.

The company also reported in its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan that most of its planned energy generation buildout over the next 25 years will be zero-carbon, with about 15% or less of added generation coming from new natural gas plants. Three of five presented proposals would not retire existing fossil fuel generation — resulting in 36 million to 43.8 million tons of projected yearly carbon emissions.

Signed by three state senators and six delegates, the letter cites two Virginia laws: the Virginia Clean Economy Act and the Environmental Justice Act, both passed in 2020.

The VCEA requires Dominion to shift its power generation to 100% renewable sources by 2045, while the EJA states “it is the policy of the Commonwealth to promote environmental justice and ensure that it is carried out.” The EJA has been used to inform some permitting decisions, including the rejection of a permit for a compressor station intended for an extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D–Chesterfield), whose office published the letter, said she’s concerned the plant would run counter to both of those laws.

“We set a timeline for ourselves in Virginia. And so, if we're going to meet that timeline, we have to take those steps each year and begin that process of lowering carbon emissions,” Hashmi said.

Hashmi, who sponsored the EJA in 2020, said people living in that area are already environmentally burdened; until 2022, Dominion operated a coal plant adjacent to the proposed gas plant site. State law requires the company to clean up all remaining coal ash at the site. That waste product, which is stored in ponds, can leach chemicals such as arsenic into groundwater and nearby water bodies.

A rendering of the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center
Dominion Energy
Proposed view of the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, adjacent to the existing Chesterfield Power Station.

“The same community that has historically been impacted, and Chesterfield County will continue to be impacted with this power plant,” Hashmi said.

Dominion said the plant would be subject to emissions standards set by the state Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. According to spokesperson Jeremy Slayton, the project will meet EPA’s proposed stricter greenhouse gas emissions standards.

“We are also committed to meaningful dialogue with environmental justice communities by conducting conversations with the community to include public open houses, HOA/community association meetings, and one-on-one meetings with local community organizations and members,” Slayton wrote in a statement.

The company is also planning a buildout of about 15 gigawatts of renewable energy generation by 2038, mostly from solar, according to its IRP. The company claims it’s planning the most solar construction of any utility in the country.

Still, Dominion has argued the inconsistent nature of solar and wind — which are affected by the hours of sun in a day and uncontrollable weather patterns — combined with battery storage constraints make an all-renewable grid impossible with current technology.

Hashmi said she thinks Dominion’s reliability argument is “powerful,” but discussions with environmental advocates convinced her that Virginia’s energy needs can be met with renewables.

Hashmi said the commonwealth also hasn’t done enough to encourage renewable development.

“We have not moved aggressively in Virginia to really push for those renewable energies … that will continue to help us meet the goals of the VCEA. I think that needs to be our focus in the next few years,” Hashmi said.

Compared to states like California and Texas, the multistate grid operated by PJM generates a smaller portion of its energy through renewable sources. PJM does, however, utilize much more nuclear generation than the others.

Hashmi carried a bill this session that would have created a pilot grant program for solar farms built above parking lots in Richmond and Chesterfield, an effort to ease the land-use burden of solar. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but was continued to next year’s session after crossing over to a House committee.

“What I was told is that it was a budget issue, that with a tight budget year, we have to be more fiscally conservative,” Hashmi said.

Despite voicing opposition to the Chesterfield gas plant, Hashmi said she sees Dominion as a partner in the energy transition because it provides power for most Virginians.

The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors has permitting authority over the plant. If they approve it, state regulators will next evaluate the plant for an air emissions permit.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.