Tick, tock! The April 15 deadline is fast approaching for when Dominion Virginia Power will have to shut down its Yorktown One and Two coal-fired units, leaving the Virginia Peninsula vulnerable to blackouts. That risk will hang over the region, home to a half million people, for a year-and-a-half or more — for however long it takes to gain regulatory approval for a solution and then build a replacement source of electric power,
The question every Virginian should ask: What is going on inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? What is taking so long to make a decision, either yea or nay? Whatever the final outcome, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the regulatory process is badly broken.
Dominion has known for several years that it would have to replace the capacity of the Yorktown units. It conducted an alternatives analysis, and then considered running a transmission line down the spine of the Peninsula before scotching the idea because the line would cross too many wetlands, subdivisions and Indian lands. Then the utility settled on building a 500 kV transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. PJM Interconnection, the organization that runs the multi-state electric grid that includes Virginia, has repeatedly confirmed that that the Surry-Skiffes Creek route selected by Dominion is the most cost effective. Dominion obtained State Corporation Commission approval for the project in 2013 and survived a Virginia Supreme Court challenge. The Environmental Protection Agency has given Dominion two one-year extensions on the operation of the Yorktown power stations.
The final regulatory hurdle was gaining a permit from the Norfolk office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has to balance the economic justification of the project against environmental and conservation considerations. By August 2013, when Dominion submitted a revised permit request, the proposal had stirred up intense resistance from citizens and conservation groups on the grounds that the Surry-Skiffes line’s high steel towers would ruin views of a historically sacred stretch of river, which has remained largely unspoiled since English settlers landed at Jamestown.
For three-and-a-half years, the Corps has solicited public input, held public hearings, examined alternative solutions, and considered Dominion proposals — $85 million worth — to mitigate the loss of historical and cultural resources. (See the Corp’s regulatory time-line here.) All this time Dominion has been sounding the warning that after April 15 the Peninsula would be at risk of region-wide blackouts.
For roughly 60 days a year, during periods of peak electric load, the electric lines bringing in power from outside the region would be running at close to peak capacity. The system would be only one unplanned outage of a transmission line away from a crisis. National electric reliability standards require Dominion to maintain enough redundancy in the system to withstand two simultaneous contingencies. Rather than risk a cascading blackout like the one that knocked out electric power for 50 million Americans and Canadians in the infamous 2003 blackout, PJM would order Dominion to “shed load” to eliminate the risk. During hot summer months or cold winter months, controlled blackouts could become a frequent event on the Peninsula.
There is no question that the Army Corps has a hard decision to make with Surry-Skiffes — whether to risk economically disruptive blackouts until a new solution can be found or to mar an irreplaceable historical treasure. But the longer it waits, the longer it puts the region at risk. If it gives the OK tomorrow, it would still take Dominion a year and a half to build the transmission line. If the corps declines to issue the permit, the utility will take even longer to devise an alternative, gain the necessary permits and build whatever needs to be built. Either way, the interminable decision-making process has put the Peninsula economy at risk.
The scandal here is not the necessity of obtaining Army Corps approval. The country needs a mechanism to evaluate the merits of giant infrastructure projects against the harm they might pose to communities. The scandal is the length of time it takes to reach that decision. Three-and-a-half years is way too long. The system is broken. It needs to be fixed.