Dominion Energy CEO Bob Blue joined Episode 69 of the Factor This! podcast to break down Dominion’s ambitious carbon reduction plan, offshore wind’s turbulent waters, and why the utility is leaning in on long-duration battery tech. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Bob Blue knows the joke won’t land with everyone.

“I think everyone loves (IOUs),” he says, using the shorthand for investor-owned utilities. “It just rolls off the tongue.”

To be sure, utilities aren’t seen as bastions of innovation, and are often criticized for slow-walking the fight against climate change. But, at the same time, maybe no other entity is equipped to shoulder the risk of incubating the raft of emerging technologies desperately needed for decarbonization.

Take, for example, Dominion Energy, which Blue leads as its chief executive. The Virginia-based utility’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind farm is one of the few to survive the nascent industry’s thus-far turbulent launch in the US. It also is among a handful of IOUs piloting long-duration energy storage technology, which currently doesn’t have market structures to support sound economics.

Therein lies the role of today’s utility, Blue said on the Factor This! podcast from Renewable Energy World. While reliability is a utility’s chief charge, innovation can, and should, be at the forefront.

“We’re not interested in a pilot just for experimentation,” Blue said. “We’re interested in proving that they work and that then we can scale them.”

Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot turbines. (Courtesy: Dominion Energy)

Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind — the $9.8 billion, 2.6 GW project that could be the first commercial-scale offshore wind project in the US if it is completed in 2026 — remains on-time and on-budget.

Dominion benefited from timing (the project began in 2013, long before inflation and interest rates doomed several of the country’s earliest projects) and from the fact that the project falls under the utility’s regulated business. That luxury is unavailable to counterparts in the Northeast, where policymakers unbundled grid operations from generation.

Watch the full episode on YouTube

The project has not been without its setbacks. Siemens Gamesa, the turbine manufacturer plagued by a multi-billion dollar quality control flop, has scrapped plans for a blade finishing facility in Virginia at a previously-announced hub with Dominion and offshore wind developer Ørsted. And macroeconomic pressures have led Dominion to consider taking on a financial partner to insulate the utility from risk.

But none of those factors have torpedoed the project, as they have others in Connecticut, Massachusetts and, most recently, New Jersey.

“I think the long term prospects are still quite good for the offshore wind industry, and the short term prospects for our project are still quite good and we feel really good about it,” Blue said.

Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind began with two turbines spinning 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach— a test case for how the technology would impact Dominion’s systems and operations. The utility, which serves 7 million electricity and gas customers across 15 states, is taking a similar approach to another emerging technology key to sustainability goals: long-duration energy storage.

Dominion is piloting a pair of projects with Form Energy and EnerVenue that aim to provide storage of up to 10 and 100 hours, respectively, a non-trivial jump from the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries, which discharge from 1 to 4 hours. Form Energy has similar contracts in place with Georgia Power and Xcel, both vertically integrated IOUs like Dominion.

Form Energy’s iron-air battery. (Courtesy: Form Energy)

Blue recognizes that plenty of detractors will claim Dominion doesn’t move fast enough.  At the same time, utilities can’t afford to “move fast and break things,” like the tech industry. But as technology advances, those “blunt instruments” become more refined and trustworthy.

“Utilities can be great mechanisms for scaling up innovation,” Blue said.

Originally published in Renewable Energy World.

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