Time to Panic Over the Closing of Yorktown Units? In a Word… No

Yorktown Power Station.

Yorktown Power Station. Photo credit: Daily Press

The day, April 15, is fast approaching when Dominion Virginia Power will be compelled by federal regulations to shut down two coal-fired generating units at the Yorktown Power Station, exposing the Virginia Peninsula to the risk of blackouts.

When the Yorktown units are shuttered, the utility will have enough electric power to supply the half million-person region from the outside most of the time. But during periods of peak demand, usually during the summer, an accident knocking one of those lines out of commission will put the region only one more incident away from uncontrolled, cascading blackouts that could spread to Norfolk, Richmond and beyond. Rather than incur any chance of disaster, PJM Interconnection, the organization that controls the transmission grid for a 12-state region that includes Virginia, would “shed load” — in other words, cut off electric power to some residents and businesses on the Peninsula.

Dominion’s proposed backup, the Surry-Skiffes transmission line, remains in a state of regulatory limbo while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers negotiates ways to mitigate the line’s impact on a near-pristine stretch of the James River near Jamestown. Even if the Corps gave Dominion a permit tomorrow, it will take 18 months — and two summers — before the line can be built.

If I were a Peninsula business or resident, I’d be wondering, is it time to panic yet? I put the questions to Dominion: How frequent will the blackouts be and how bad will they be?

The answer: The threat is real but small in any given year, and a blackout, if it occurs, is likely to be limited in scope and duration. However, while the Peninsula might skate through the next year or two without a blackout, the situation is intolerable over the long run, Dominion warns. The Peninsula is the region most exposed to blackouts in the Dominion system and possibly the most vulnerable in the entire PJM transmission grid.

“This is a serious situation,” says Steve Chafin, Dominion director of transmission planning and strategic initiatives. When three things come together — (1) temperatures are running high, (2) the Yorktown 3 unit isn’t running, and (3) an accident knocks out a transmission line or sub-station — PJM likely will have to shed load.

Assuming normal weather conditions, the Peninsula will experience between 50 and 80 “high risk” days, Chafin says. Peak consumption is likely to occur in the summer, when temperatures are highest, although a few days may occur in the winter when temperatures are extremely low.

Although the company is closing two coal-fired units, the Environmental Protection Agency will allow it to run Yorktown 3, a oil-fired unit, 8% of the time, or up to 29 days. Using Yorktown 3 as a backup will reduce the number of vulnerable days to between 20 to 50.

Transmission lines to the Peninsula have been knocked out by accidents, component malfunctions or other causes six times in the past 10 years — an average of once every 20 months. (There have been two incidents in the past 10 years in which two simultaneous outages occurred.)

To reduce the odds of such mishaps shutting down a transmission line, the utility has been increasing its patrols of electric lines, boosting sub-station inspections and running infrared scanner. “This is not a normal mode of operation,” says Chafin. “We don’t patrol our transmission lines this frequently.”

If a once-every-twenty-months line outage occurs during one of the 20 to 50 at-risk days of heavy consumption when Yorktown 3 isn’t running, the electric grid will be at risk of an uncontrolled, cascading blackout. PJM, working in coordination with Dominion, will decide whether or not to shed load.

Should it become necessary to cut electricity consumption, the goal will be to disrupt as few people as possible and spare critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants. PJM and Dominion would continuously run contingency models to determine the best course of action.

“Our goal is to avoid the need for temporary service interruptions, but should it become necessary, we will do all we can to limit the number of customers and duration,” Chafin says. “In the end, these are temporary measures to protect the larger grid from widespread, uncontrolled outages.”

Should blackouts occur, they likely would not last all day or affect the entire Peninsula. The company would close no more circuits than needed to drop electricity consumption to within a safe range. Giving a hypothetical example, Chafin says, “We might do two or three blocks of circuits of a few thousand customers for an hour or two.”

Dominion also would ask Peninsula customers to voluntarily conserve electricity.  “The more the conservation, the shorter the duration and the fewer people affected,” he says.

With a little luck the Peninsula might escape unscathed, Chafin says. “We’re running drills to make sure we’re ready. We think we can get through the summer without any rotating blackouts.”

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22 responses to “Time to Panic Over the Closing of Yorktown Units? In a Word… No

  1. Here’s a question. If Surry is to be the backup to the Peninsula.. then what is Surry currently providing power to – that it could do without Surry until the Peninsula no longer needed Surry?

    and why can’t other power lines go across the James downstream of Surry and out of the viewshed of Jamestown perhaps 15 miles downstream where there are existing powerlines across the James right now?

    • Surry-Skiffes has nothing to do with the nuclear power station. It is hooking into the 530 kV transmission line, which happens to be there because of the power plant. The Peninsula is drawing from the grid, not from a particular power station.

  2. Jim, thank you for an excellent piece to provide needed perspective on the chances of dropping load on the Peninsula. This situation really is a demonstration of government not doing its job.

    Larry, I cannot emphasize enough, the problem is not generation but transmission. The arc of 500 kV transmission lines that runs from North Anna past Richmond and southeast to Hampton Roads is essentially a bottomless pit for supplying power to local substations for distribution to customers. That is part of PJM’s “backbone” for the entire mid-Atlantic region. Whether Surry itself is even generating or not is irrelevant; that arc of 500 kV transmission lines can move enough power from one end to the other to satisfy the highest demands even from distant sources along those lines.

    The problem is, the Peninsula has inadequate connections to that transmission arc around Richmond. If Dominion could supply the Peninsula from the northwest with a stronger connection, it would — but that means crossing the Chickahominy River swamp and area battlefield parks and condemning a few homes, which they try very hard to avoid. If Dominion could strengthen the connections with Norfolk and Portsmouth that would work too. But after looking at those options, it chose to come straight across the River from Surry as the least cost option. Again, the goal is to be able to get more power into the Peninsula — where it’s going to come from is not the issue.

    See: http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Portals/31/docs/regulatory/Skiffes/Section%20106/3_03.11.2015_Dom_Response_to_NERC_ChickLanexa.pdf?ver=2016-06-28-124043-903 and http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Portals/31/docs/regulatory/Skiffes/Alternatives/Dominion_Resp_Corps_NPCA_09.12.2016.pdf?ver=2016-09-20-114556-587

  3. then why cant the power lines cross anywhere? why can they only be there and no where else?

    • Because that’s where a 500 kV transmission line comes closest to the Peninsula (other than Chickahominy, Dominion’s original preferred route, which would create even more problems than the James River).

      • nope… look at the crossing near Ft. Eustis:

        ?access_token=pk.eyJ1IjoidHJhaWxzIiwiYSI6ImNpdGwyM2w4aDAwMDUyeW84dTE2Yzkycm4ifQ.Rb2yrBLWc3M3sPtwE2yUtA

        Dominion is purposely picking alternatives that are not viable and ignoring places that are…

        this is all about Dominion doing what they want to do and the public be damned.

      • Why do you suppose Dominion is picking the Surry-Skiffes route? Out of pure perversity?

        • No.. I think that THEY think that’s the best place for them.

          But it’s not just their decision.

          And they are purposely obstructing other viable alternatives by refusing to identify them and purposely only identifying ones that are obviously not viable.

          VDOT has a history of doing the same thing.

          In both cases – it’s arrogant behavior that presumes that they get to choose and the public be damned.

          • I do not defend Dominion as the World’s Most Transparent Planner. But Dominion, the VSCC, PJM, and now the CE, have given the alternatives a full airing. Look at the links above for a lot more about why they all (except the CE, which continues to sit on it) have concurred with Dominion’s choice, and what conditions each of them has placed on it. The VSCC is the lead State siting agency here and if you want more, read their 2013 order. If you’re not willing to accept the VSCC’s conclusions, you need to read WHY they accepted Dominion’s rejection of the alternative configurations; they did not do so for what I’d consider toss-away reasons. I’ve stated here before, that aerial crossing of the James River was a nightmare choice and I’d have urged anything-but in terms of ultimate p.r. cost to the Company, but they chose it as the least cost option that gave them the transmission reliability they need.

  4. Time to panic? No. Time to plan? Yes. The odds of the utility issuing a call for major users in particular to shed load will greatly increase. In some cases that could mean employees sent home with less pay for a shift or three. But what is that compared to the view from the Kingsmill marina? Small price to pay…..

    Larry, a few posts back there was a long discussion of the alternatives considered and this crossing is the most efficient on an engineering and cost basis. The longer the power line, the more it costs. If cost were of no concern, sure, lots of easy ways around this. Me, I want the utility under some pressure to look for the lowest cost solution.

    • Steve – my understanding is that Dominion is offering 80 million dollars in mitigation.

      I want to see the routes that ARE viable and the costs – as alternatives.

      Have they looked downstream of Surry towards the Rt 17 bridge? they are actually CLOSER 2 miles below Surry.

      Dominion is purposely picking alternatives that are problematic.. and ignoring many others..

      They have to justify that there are no other viable crossings.. before they talk about money. Once viable places to cross are identified, then costs can be discussed – and costs along do not justify crossing at the least costly place – either.

      Dominion is simply not entitled to do what they want to do .. no matter the consequences.

      They have shown no willingness at all to look at other potential crossings.. only ones that they know are not viable to start with.

      At some point they need to answer for their arrogant attitude and lack of willingness to truly look at other places that can be crossed.

      They cannot say that all other places are either too costly or cross unacceptable places.. that’s just non-responsive .. and really arrogant. They’ve got this same attitude whether it’s powerlines, pipelines or coal ash..

      • “They have shown no willingness at all to look at other potential crossings.. only ones that they know are not viable to start with.”

        This is flat-out untrue.

        The Army Corps conducted a thorough alternatives analysis and ended up agreeing with Dominion.

        • No.. I think that THEY think that’s the best place for them.

          But it’s not just their decision.

          And they are purposely obstructing other viable alternatives by refusing to identify them and purposely only identifying ones that are obviously not viable.

          VDOT has a history of doing the same thing.

          In both cases – it’s arrogant behavior that presumes that they get to choose and the public be damned.

          • When you say things like, “Dominion is purposely picking alternatives that are problematic and ignoring many others,” or, “they are purposely obstructing other viable alternatives by refusing to identify them and purposely only identifying ones that are obviously not viable,” you lose me. I think there’s plenty of evidence in the administrative record that you’re wrong — there were LOTs of alternatives considered and rejected, including all the obvious ones, maybe for reasons you would not agree with but for good reasons nonetheless. Go ahead repeating that allegation despite the facts and you only diminish your own credibility — like a politician we know.

        • how about showing the alternatives that the Corps selected without any influence from Dominion.. and then had an independent analysis done not just from Dominion.

          Isn’t it true that Dominion is the one picking the alternatives and doing the analysis?

          If I’m wrong – I’ll stand corrected but it’s my impression that the COE has not itself selected alternatives nor has had independent analysis done.

          We’ve heard that PJM has “approved” the selected alternative crossing. Is that true? Or is it more true that the one DOminion wants meets the PJM requirements but it is by no means the only way of achieving those requirements.

          There are existing 500kv James River crossings and existing 500kv corridors down the Peninsular – right?

          There are potential crossings downstream of Surry all the way to the James River Bridge where there is a crossing.

          The NEPA process does not allow the applicant (Dominion) to rule out alternatives for cost. The alternative must be included -and studied and the cost made part of it. Those alternatives then get examined by COE.. for it to render a decision. It’s not Dominion’s decision.

          • Re PJM, you are correct, they merely said it’s an acceptable way to deal with the Peninsula after Yorktown. Although there were other lower- voltage options considered and I believe PJM endorsed the 500 kV connection option as preferable for future system operations.

          • JustRe, “There are potential crossings downstream of Surry all the way to the James River Bridge where there is a crossing.”. Adding an additional 230 kV line to the crossing at the James River Bridge was considered. I don’t recall explicit consideration of paralleling the existing 230 kV there with a new 500 kV line but that would have required a new separate tower line wherever built as a 230 kV tower doesn’t have the required clearances or strength to carry hi 500 kV. Why the line had to terminate at Skiffes Creek substation rather than another one farther down River in Newport News? I don’t know, but it’s a safe bet they knew the opposition from landowners would be fierce wherever they crossed and there’s no obvious alternative that wouldn’t gore somebody’s ox.

    • Here are some alternatives … most meet your cost test

      What other choices could Dominion make to reduce emissions and meet their customers needs for electricity? Efficient buildings are the cheapest source of energy. Our state ranks 47th in the nation for energy efficient reductions. One of Warren Buffet’s utilities expects to reduce demand enough to close a couple of old coal plants and not need any new generation until 2028, by financing retrofits for its customers’ buildings,

      Then there is solar … rooftop, on-site and ‘community’ scale solar. Virginia has installed very little solar even though NREL puts the technical potential for rooftop solar in Virginia at 25% of total needs and rural solar way beyond that. North Carolina has installed ten times Virginia’s total solar, California … 100 times.

      Major corporations across the country are driving the on-site solar and efficient buildings market. Reducing operating expenses are good for the bottom line. Half of Fortune 500 companies have adopted clean energy goals. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, believes on-site generation, when combined with batteries will supply a third of our total electricity. CitiGroup predicts utilities could eventually suffer a “50%+ decline in their addressable market.”

  5. RE; The NEPA process. The alternatives are identified and analyzed for costs and benefits.. and then put in a matrix where they can be compared.

    They are not “considered” and then “ruled out” for “cost”. That not the way the process works.

    The Applicant cannot control the process or rule out alternatives because of cost or other factors.. that is the process of NEPA.

    And the COE is the one that decides if something is truly not viable or too costly and, in fact, an alternative that is more costly but avoids damage to important resources IS possible.

    Anyone who does not believe this – including Dominion need only look at the decisions the COE made with regard to US 460 and wetlands.

    Dominion simply does not get to decide which alternatives are selected for study nor to decide is they are not viable or too costly. Again – that’s what the NEPA process itself is for and again – check with VDOT and the US460 issue or Tri-county parkway if one doubts that. Virginia lost millions of dollars on both.

  6. You say Dominion refuses to study choices the should have studied. Who says? Did any agency say that? With all those intervenors clamoring for attention in the hearings, did any of them make that point, or is this merely your hindsight judgment? I don’t know what the “NEPA process” means to you but it is not a term of art in administrative law. The simple fact is, if the agency you are asking to approve your choice is looking mainly at cost, the applicant is going to rank its top choices according to cost. If environmental impact, then according to EI. The SCC is looking at cost.

    I think you give way too much credit (or blame) to Dominion for “controlling” the process according to some devious scheme. No applicant wants to get a reputation for hiding the ball — how does that help anyone, most of all the applicant? What does it have to gain by not describing the options honestly? What goal is served by misleading the agency to approve the wrong choice? Nothing, and I guarantee that’s not their intent. Did they hire the right experts and explore the alternative costs competently? Now that’s a different question for some applicants, but Dominion has a solid reputation. You just don’t like their choices, for reasons you won’t share with the rest of us, and instead of blaming the agency for agreeing with the applicant you blame the applicant for “misleading” the agency and everyone else. It ain’t so, get real.

    • re:
      ” You say Dominion refuses to study choices the should have studied. Who says? Did any agency say that? With all those intervenors clamoring for attention in the hearings, did any of them make that point, or is this merely your hindsight judgment?”

      Nope. It’s a statement of the obvious – anyone who actually believes there is ONLY ONE solution to this and it’s the one that Dominion wants – is ignoring realities. Remember this is the same company with the same type problems whether it is with pipelines, coal ash, 3rd party solar, etc.. There is a Corporate Culture in play here.

      ” I don’t know what the “NEPA process” means to you but it is not a term of art in administrative law. ”

      Try looking at 40 CFR 1500-1508 and maybe reassess your view about the “law”.

      “The simple fact is, if the agency you are asking to approve your choice is looking mainly at cost, the applicant is going to rank its top choices according to cost. If environmental impact, then according to EI. The SCC is looking at cost.”

      Acbar – you misunderstand the legal aspects of NEPA then and I invite you to do a search of NEPA-based lawsuits , key phrase (record of decision) , and the point of NEPA is that no matter what the priorities of the applicant are – the public interest is higher because all of these applicants are proposing things on behalf of the public and the law says that it’s the public’s decision not the applicant.

      And no cost is not the only criteria. You need to go Google NEPA and look because what is says is to look comprehensively at ALL benefits and impacts of which cost is but one of those. In some cases – the more expensive option is the one chosen because the other impacts are considered more damaging and more important than cost.

      but that’s the essential point of NEPA is to take a HARD LOOK at the available options to not rule any out until all have been included for analysis to compare and contrast to each other and to arrive at (again do a GOOGLE) – an informed decision.

      Here’s I’ll help you out here:

      https://www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/projdev/index.asp

      you will no doubt notice the words: 23 CFR § 771.105 which IS LAW!

      “I think you give way too much credit (or blame) to Dominion for “controlling” the process according to some devious scheme. No applicant wants to get a reputation for hiding the ball — how does that help anyone, most of all the applicant? What does it have to gain by not describing the options honestly?”

      Acbar – have you actually been following their behaviors on the pipeline and coal ash – 3rd party solar, was well as this? It’s crystal clear they are heavily involved in trying to influence the decisions.. including the use of PR – to “spin” the issues and try to gain public support – for what THEY want.

      “What goal is served by misleading the agency to approve the wrong choice? Nothing, and I guarantee that’s not their intent. Did they hire the right experts and explore the alternative costs competently? Now that’s a different question for some applicants, but Dominion has a solid reputation. You just don’t like their choices, for reasons you won’t share with the rest of us, and instead of blaming the agency for agreeing with the applicant you blame the applicant for “misleading” the agency and everyone else. It ain’t so, get real.”

      What goal is served? Like VDOT – there is an arrogance here with respect to what they believe is – in their opinion – are the “right” choices as if THEIR decisions ARE the best for the public! Not TRUE!

      It’s just simply not their sole prerogative and their perspective is obviously not the perspective of others involved in the process which they seek to portray as either enviro-weenies, NIMBY or “obstructive” regulators.

      They simply believe they are right – and they are using all the tools they have to try to get decisions to be what they want. They are NOT working diligently to FIND alternatives to what they do want as their first choice.
      what other options have they actually said “will work” but not their first choice? NONE! ZIPPO! According to them there are NO OTHER CHOICES. Really?

      And no.. It’s not that I don’t like the choices. (what choices other than the one?) It’s that I want to see a full array of options – STUDIED and analyzed by someone other than DOminion and for someone other than them to make the call on the best choice to go forward – even if it means more money to avoid what others feel are significant resources.

      It’s up to the public via the NEPA process to make that determination.

      What DOminion is doing is trying to rule out alternatives before they are even studied by claiming they are not viable or too costly whereas that’s not their call – that’s what the NEPA process is for.

      They purposely picked a route through Chickahominy as the only route – look at a map guy… Same thing with Skiffes Creek itself. The mouth of Skiffes-Creek is actually downstream of the point and out of the visual of Jamestown but apparently it’s not viable – to Dominion. Not their call!

      What about from there for the next 15 miles to the James River Bridge where there is an existing crossing ?

      Don’t tell me that Dominion has “looked” at ALL of those and decided there are no good options than can even be studied. That’s NOT THEIR DECISION. They cannot rule out alternatives from being included for analysis and to behave that way indicates an arrogance.. not unlike the way that VDOT acted with US 460 and got their clock cleaned by trying to circumvent the NEPA process.

      Dominion knows what is best for Dominion – I’ll grant them that. But they do not know what is best for the public and it is arrogant for them to believe that what is best for them is best for the public. It’s just totally wrongheaded.

      If the public does not want Jamestown to be adversely impacted and actually do want a more expensive route – that is THEIR DECISION – not Dominions.

  7. Gee — I guess it comes down to, we disagree on some things. You keep on using words like “they purposely . . .” refused to study this, or insisted on that, and it’s that “purpose” stuff which leaves me cold. I’ve been there inside utility planning circles and quizzed my own people internally before hearings to find out what really motivated “Choice X” and found out — surprise, surprise — there was no conspiracy to advance the Company’s hidden interest, just people trying to do their job. Nearly every time the planners came up with something strange it was because, they said, “That’s what the Commission told us to do last time” or “we hoped to avoid that problem we had last time with Objection X” or something like that where their motivation was simply to get fast, uncontroversial approval. Because, time is money, even for a public utility, and the sooner you get all the permits and approvals the sooner you can build it, and move on. What the utility wants above all is certainty. No-risk certainty. “If it costs more to satisfy the Commission, or the CE, fine, just tell me with certainty that’s the way it has to be and I’ll build it that way, your way, just let me get on with it! If the commissions disagree, I will always back the least cost of their options because that way they disagree with each other, not with me, and if the more expensive option wins it wasn’t me that ‘won’ but the commission with the more expensive option.”

    Regulatory indecision. Procrastination. Post construction contingencies. Ideological motivation. Those are what drive a utility engineering planner bat-crazy!

    The other thing thing that drives them crazy is, accusing them of doing their jobs in bad faith.

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