It was one of the coldest days of the year.
The temperature last Dec. 16 measured 8 degrees as two vehicles with legislative license plates crept up a back road in Bath County that seemed to lead nowhere . . . until they rounded a bend and a huge earthen dam loomed before them. This was Dominion Energy’s Bath County Pumped Storage Station, a 32-year-old hydroelectric project both massive and obscure at the same time, and one that three state legislators from Virginia’s coalfields and one of their aides wanted to see up close.
Well, maybe not that close, given the temperatures. Dominion officials drove the visitors around the site, showing how water flows from an upper reservoir through tunnels and turbines into a lower reservoir— and then is pumped back to the upper reservoir again. Nobody got out. It was too cold. Politics is not always as glamorous as it seems. The visitors did get a tour of the inside of the power plant – 20 stories worth of machinery that’s mostly below the water level. “I felt like we were going in some secret world,” marveled Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon.
About two hours later, he and his colleagues were on their way back home with an idea that they hope will help turn around their region’s economy — and could also spark the state’s next political controversy. Namely: Should the state’s largest utility build a similar project in the coalfields?
The General Assembly and the governor have already said yes. Dominion is now studying two potential sites, one in Tazewell County, another in Wise County, and hopes to settle on one in early 2018. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are now starting to ask critical questions about a $2 billion project that seemed to come out of nowhere and has moved with remarkable speed.
The curious thing about the proposed Southwest project is that it’s not one Dominion asked for. It originated with three Republican state legislators who are trying figure out how to reinvent the economy of the state’s coalfields —Pillion, Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County and state Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County.
Their basic thinking: The coalfields have been an energy center; is there a way for them to still be an energy center as coal declines? And which heavy hitters could help them?
That led to one obvious heavy hitter: Dominion Energy. Five years ago, the state’s largest utility opened the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, a plant that burns, among other things, coal waste and wood chips. That plant employs about 100 workers and supports an estimated 350 more in related businesses, such as the mines and trucks that supply the plant. Could Dominion be persuaded to build something else in the coalfields?
“We needed a major project,” Pillion says. “Dominion had already made it clear they’re not building another coal-fired plant, so if they’re not doing that, what are you doing? What can you be doing?”
That led to the legislators’ visit last December to Dominion’s Bath County project. Less than a month later, the legislators filed a bill to create the legal framework for a similar project in the coalfields. By the end of the February, the General Assembly had passed the bill unanimously and Gov. Terry McAuliffe had signed it into law.
A brief explanation is in order: Pumped storage projects actually consume more power than they produce. The trick is they can produce that power when demand (and therefore prices) are highest and then pump the water back to the upper reservoir when demand (and therefore prices) are lowest.
The general idea is that other forms of energy — for Dominion that includes a lot of nuclear power — provide the base power, with pumped storage providing additional power when it’s needed most. Inside the Bath County plant is a phone line to Dominion’s Richmond headquarters. Within six minutes of getting a call, Bath can generate additional power — usually in the mornings and at dinner time when demand peaks.
The proposed project in the coalfields includes two curious features. One is the requirement that renewable energy be used to power the water pumped upstream — an element the utility included to make the project more appealing to McAuliffe (and one which helps Dominion check off a box for renewable power). The other is the possibility that the water being used might come from an abandoned coal mine, rather than damming up an existing stream. That’s a wrinkle that has drawn international attention as a way to repurpose old mines.
Coalfield legislators see the project as one that could help remake the region’s economy — first through an estimated 2,000 construction jobs but later on by re-affirming Southwest Virginia as an energy capital even in a post-coal future. Once up and running, the project would employ about 50 people, which doesn’t sound like much, but is a lot in the coalfields. When Dominion was narrowing down locations to study, there were Facebook campaigns to lobby for one site or another. “It was like Amazon for Southwest,” Pillion says. It’s little wonder people there have been excited. “They’re sick of their kids moving away,” Pillion says. The coalfields are desperate, and the attention of a Fortune 200 company provides some hope.
That’s one of the many reasons proponents see the project in world-changing terms. “This can change us; this can keep us as the energy capital of Virginia,” Pillion says. Some hope the project will help the coalfields attract technology jobs. Tech companies demand renewable energy; here would be some. “Whatever energy source you want,” Pillion says, “we will have it.”
Now for the sensitive question: Does Dominion really need this energy? That’s a point the Sierra Club and others have started to raise. Will Dominion’s rate-payers (mostly in eastern Virginia) have to pay for an unnecessary project cooked up by some Southwest Virginia politicians as a jobs scheme? “We always need more energy,” says Dominion spokesman Dan Genest. That’s an assurance not likely to appease Dominion’s critics, who fault the utility for too little emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation.
Ultimately, those are technical questions, though they might become political ones. We have a one that’s political from the outset: If this project is not the right answer, then what would critics propose that would deliver the same economic impact to the coalfields?