by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury

A handful of Democratic legislators are opposed to a plan to build a natural gas power plant in Chesterfield, a proposal that Virginia’s largest utility said will ensure electric grid reliability during expected surges in power demands over the next 15 to 25 years.

Seven delegates and two senators representing the greater Richmond area signed a statement Wednesday issued by the office of Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond. The project proposal “runs counter to the measures the Commonwealth has taken recently to lower carbon emissions and to diversify energy production and storage,” it reads.

In 2020, the Democratic-majority General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a policy that requires the state’s electric grid to decarbonize by 2045 by transitioning to renewable energy sources and retiring fossil fuel generation sources. 

That same year, Virginia passed the Environmental Justice Act, which requires the state to promote “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of every person, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, faith, or disability” when developing, implementing or enacting environmental laws, regulations and policies.

The legislators’ opposition to the Chesterfield plant cites projections from Dominion’s long-term planning documents that say the utility’s carbon emissions would increase. The utility produced 21.8 million metric tons in 2021 and estimated it would emit 36 to 43.8 million metric tons by 2048. The proposed 1,000 megawatt Chesterfield plant, which would be sited next to the utility’s now-closed coal-fired plant, is included in Dominion’s estimates. 

About 20,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the proposed plant; 36% of them are low-income, and about 48% are people of color, according to information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included in the lawmakers’ statement.

The opposing legislators also question the cost of the project, which was $600 million in a 2019 iteration of the proposal, but hasn’t been disclosed in the current plan. Dominion’s customers would bear those costs.

“With the VCEA stipulation that most polluting plants be shut down by 2045, the construction of a new and costly power plant makes little fiscal sense,” the statement reads. 

Dominion proposed the natural gas plant last summer as part of its non-binding, long-term planning document, called an Integrated Resource Plan, as a way to meet an expected increase in electric grid load growth, largely due to data center development in the state, more electric vehicle use and efforts to boost homes’ energy efficiency. This type of facility is commonly referred to as a “peaker plant,” because of its intended use during periods of peak demand for electricity.

A challenge of relying solely on renewable technologies like wind and solar during the energy transition is that they’re limited to producing electricity on an intermittent basis, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Mark Christie, a former member of the State Corporation Commission that regulates Dominion, echoed that concern in remarks last May.

When it comes to grid reliability,, “the problem generally is not the addition of intermittent resources — primarily wind and solar — but the far too rapid subtraction of dispatchable resources, especially coal and gas.”

About 95% of the energy generation sources in Dominion’s IRP is from carbon-free sources, including 2,600 megawatts from offshore wind, about 800 megawatts a year from solar and long-duration energy storage devices, which can provide power for over 100 hours instead of the traditional four-hour period, and small modular nuclear reactors, though they are largely unproven at the commercial level. The remaining 5% of new generation sources comes from the Chesterfield plant.

“Renewables alone cannot keep our customers’ power on 24/7, especially with power demand nearly doubling over the coming decades,” said Dominion spokesman Jeremy Slayton. “That is why we need an all-of-the-above, balanced approach that advances the clean-energy transition, but without sacrificing on reliability.” 

Still, community members have joined lawmakers in raising concerns about the planned power plant and some are calling for local action against it.

“Given the significant potential for harm to the community, we urge the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to deny Dominion Energy’s zoning application to move forward with the gas plant,” said Aliya Farooq, a founding member of the group Friends of Chesterfield County that formed last year to oppose the proposed plant.

The project still needs approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality for its air permit, Chesterfield County for its land use permit and the SCC for its Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. If all of these are acquired, construction of the plant would begin in 2026 and it’s slated to become operational by the end of 2028.

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