Virginia doesn’t need another gas plant

On April 24, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) will consider a proposal from Dominion Virginia Power to build a new natural gas-fueled generating plant, the second of three it wants to add to its holdings. Its first plant, now under construction in Warren County, generated little opposition because it will replace old coal boilers that Dominion needs to retire.

But the latest proposal for a plant in Brunswick has come in for fierce criticism, and for good reason: we don’t need another gas plant. Dominion has exaggerated the growth in demand that it says justifies the plant, and the company could more cheaply meet its actual needs with energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Moreover, the world is changing, and the energy model of big utilities running big baseload power plants is becoming outdated. If Dominion builds another of these, Virginia could end up stuck with a giant concrete paperweight.  The SCC owes it to customers not to let this happen.

Every year Dominion tells regulators it expects demand to increase by 1.5% to 2% per year indefinitely, but its actual energy sales have been essentially flat since 2006. Sure, the recent recession threw everyone a curveball, but Dominion’s tendency to overstate future demand goes back decades. The company seems not to have anticipated widespread changes like more efficient appliances and better building codes that let consumers use less electricity even while we’re buying more gadgets.

With a little effort, we could save even more energy. Virginia ranks in the bottom half of states for energy efficiency, and Dominion is not on track to meet even the modest efficiency goals of the Virginia Energy Plan. Some of the fault for this lies with the SCC itself, which has often rejected energy efficiency programs. But nor has Dominion tried very hard. Even their rate structure is designed to encourage energy use. Greater efficiency would mean lower electricity sales, and who wants that? Not a company that makes its money building plants and selling electricity.

And this is a shame, because the cheapest energy is the energy that isn’t used. Virginians use 20% more electricity per person as our neighbors in Maryland, so we have a lot of low-hanging fruit we should pick before we build another power plant.

Even if we needed more power, though, building another baseload natural gas plant is a bad plan. A “baseload” plant is one designed to run continuously, unlike a “peaker” plant that fills in when needed. The price of natural gas fluctuates wildly, so building a baseload plant means committing customers to paying whatever the going rate happens to be, all day, every day, for the 30-year life of a gas plant. With about a third of Dominion’s power mix already coming from natural gas, surely adding more baseload gas is a reckless gamble when alternatives are available. Even Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has warned against an over-reliance on natural gas for this very reason.

It used to be that alternatives to fossil fuels weren’t much available, so a 30-year gamble was normal, and regulators didn’t trouble themselves by asking what the world would be like in 20 years. Wind and solar have changed that. When you build a wind farm or a solar facility, you know exactly what you will be paying for energy 20 years down the road, because your “fuel” is free. Building wind or solar is like locking in a fixed-rate mortgage instead of gambling on an adjustable rate mortgage with a low teaser rate. With that as an option, why should Virginians commit themselves to 30 years of buying gas at whatever the market decides is the price?

With prices dropping rapidly, wind and solar are today’s fastest growing energy technologies, and wind is second only to gas as a source of new electric generation. Of course, Virginia can’t boast a single wind farm today, and the smattering of solar across the state totals less than 1% of what New Jersey has. But even here, time and economics are on the side of renewable energy. Citigroup recently issued a report projecting that renewable energy will reach grid parity across the U.S. within the next few years and will gradually relegate all other fuels to back-up status.

This makes it an even worse idea for Dominion to invest in a plant that cannot easily adjust its output when the wind picks up or the sun comes out. Other options exist. Gas turbines are now being designed to integrate with renewable energy, combining high efficiency with the ability to ramp up and down quickly. Companies like General Electric are making big bets that this is the future of gas turbines.

Dominion, meanwhile, seems to be looking at the future as if we were back in the 20th century, and without even taking advantage of hindsight. Its plan is a bad deal for its customers, and the State Corporation Commission should reject it.