Bacon's Rebellion

Doubling Down on Natural Gas

Dawn Garber, a Dominion environmental engineer, stands by a strut supporting the 72 immense fans used to cool steam to water at the Brunswick plant.

Dominion says its new Brunswick County Power Station is clean, super-efficient, and a good deal for rate payers. Environmentalists question whether the natural gas-fired facility is a wise investment over the long run.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power’s new $1.2 billion gas-fired power plant in Brunswick County is state-of-the-art. Three of the most efficient gas turbines in the world combined with the recycling of exhaust heat to power a steam-powered boiler “makes this one of the most efficient plants in the world,” said Paul Koonce, CEO of the Dominion Generation Group, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

The Brunswick County Power Station will generate electricity more efficiently than the coal-fired units at the Chesapeake Energy Center it is replacing — converting 55% of the energy produced by combustion into electricity, compared to 35% for the typical coal-fired power plant — and it will emit significantly fewer pollutants and less carbon-dioxide.

The facility is a showcase for Dominion’s multibillion-dollar pivot away from coal to natural gas. The company is seeking regulatory approval for a slightly larger gas-fired power plant five miles away in Greenville County, and the utility’s parent company, Dominion Resources, hopes to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to deliver gas to both Brunswick and Greensville among other locations.

While Dominion officials say Brunswick will yield $1 billion in fuel savings over the 40- to 50-year life of the plant, the company’s critics argue that it is unwise to invest such a massive sums in natural gas when renewable power sources like solar and wind represent the energy future.

“The core concern we have is that Dominion is building and planning plants that will lock in natural gas for years to come,” says Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter. “Dominion’s customers could get stuck with stranded costs” as the Clean Power Plan and foreseeable follow-up climate-change initiatives clamp down on carbon-dioxide emissions. Dominion, she says, should be moving more aggressively to zero-carbon options such as wind and solar.

“I’m sure it’s a pretty awesome plant. I’m sure it’s state of the art,” says Walton Shepherd, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it’s a textbook case of economic inefficiency.” Dominion is building its own facilities rather than purchasing electricity from wholesale markets organized by PJM Interconnection where competition thrives.

Dominion is assured a return on its $1.2 billion investment, while rate payers absorb the risk of price swings in natural gas. The price of gas is low now, but will it be in ten or twenty years? If prices rise, as many expect, the cost of gas is passed through through fuel adjustment clauses to rate payers. Meanwhile, the cost of solar and on-shore wind electricity continues to drop. Dominion could make just as much money building solar, Shepherd says, but then its parent company, Dominion Resources, would have less rationale to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“I don’t hold any grudge against Dominion,” says Shepherd. “Dominion’s behaving rationally in a regulated marketplace. That’s the system we have chosen in Virginia.”

From Dominion’s perspective, the challenge is reducing its reliance upon coal while also preserving the reliability and integrity of the electric grid. Off-shore wind is not an economical option at the moment, and mountain-top wind can deliver only small volumes of electricity. The company has solicited solar proposals but not enough projects are forthcoming to replace coal and meet anticipated growth in demand, and solar supply does not always match demand in any case. As for purchasing wholesale electricity through PJM, the volume of electricity purchased is constrained by the finite capacity of transmission lines. Natural gas, argue Dominion officials, provides the optimum balance of cost, grid reliability and pollution reduction.

The Brunswick power station has three combustion turbines fired by natural gas. Each turbine is attached to a generator rated for 266 megawatts of production. Exhaust heat from the turbines is used to boil water used in a conventional steam turbine, which generates an additional 575 megawatts. The total electricity output is sufficient to supply 347,000 homes and businesses.

Sensors atop the three exhaust towers closely monitor the emissions for carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide. Dawn Garber, supervisor-regulatory compliance, says the air permit restrictions are the toughest she has ever seen. If sensors indicate a problem, control room operators often can fix it quickly from their desks. If not, they are under orders to shut down the offending generator until the problem can be resolved. It is strict Dominion policy, she said, to stay in compliance with its permits at all times.

The plant, which is set up to run 24/7, is highly automated, requiring only 40 employees. Astonishingly, the billion-dollar facility can operate during nights and weekends with as few as two employees in the control room, although a team of specialists is on call all the time. It’s similar to being a physician on call, says Garber — except that even physicians get to rotate off duty.

While the ribbon-cutting ceremony was held yesterday, the plant has been operating more or less full blast since April as operators have been tweaking the controls to achieve optimal efficiency.

Critical to the plant is a 100-mile spur running from the massive Transco intercontinental pipeline to Brunswick County to supply up to 250 decatherms of natural gas daily. The Dominion officials I talked to yesterday did not know whether the cost of that project was public information. But published reports indicated that the pipeline cost $300 million, partly offset by a $30 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Community Revitalization Commission for the purpose of increasing capacity beyond Dominion’s needs to make supply available to industry.

Dominion also plans to deliver gas to Brunswick and a proposed sister plant in Greensville County via the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That pipeline, estimated to cost about $5 billion, will serve markets in Hampton Roads and North Carolina as well. However, supplying the Brunswick and Greensville facilities with natural gas forms part of the justification for asserting a “public need” for the ACP, and a finding of “public need” is required in order to acquire easements in the face of public opposition by eminent domain.

If the Brunswick plant is already being supplied natural gas by Transco, how can Dominion argue that there is a public need for a second pipeline? It’s all about fuel diversity, says Jim Eck, Dominion vice president of business development. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will deliver gas from different suppliers than Transco, providing Dominion more alternatives to purchase gas at lower prices. Ideally, savings from lower prices will more than offset the cost of reserving capacity on a second pipeline.

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