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Dominion Virginia Has Inflated Power Needs, Some Experts Say

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dominion Virginia Power, which is planning to build a high-voltage power line through scenic parts of Northern Virginia, is exaggerating the state's electricity problems to justify a project that benefits other areas, according to several industry specialists studying the issue.

The relatively modest problem for Virginia, they say, has better solutions than an unsightly cluster of cables atop a series of 125-foot steel towers, strung through some of the state's most beautiful and fiercely guarded open spaces.

"The proposed line is really intended to address mid-Atlantic transmission needs. I'm convinced it is a high-cost, high-risk, high-impact and sub-optimal solution," Hyde Merrill, a respected industry specialist hired by the slow-growth Piedmont Environmental Council of Warrenton to analyze the project, wrote in an e-mail. "I think that there are other solutions that are better and that deserve a harder look."

The 240-mile, $1.4 billion line, which Dominion plans to have in place by 2011, would cut through Frederick, Warren, Fauquier and Prince William counties before ending at a substation in southern Loudoun County. It would be built jointly with Pennsylvania-based Allegheny Power, which would be responsible for the western 200 miles.

If approved by the State Corporation Commission, it would bring 3,000 megawatts of power into Northern Virginia, nearly double what is generated by the North Anna nuclear plant and enough to power 750,000 homes or 3,000 Wal-Mart stores, Dominion officials said.

Dominion has said that the line is needed to feed rapidly expanding Northern Virginia, where demand for electricity has grown by 40 percent the past decade and is expected to grow another 8 percent in the next five years. The company is warning that without a new power line to connect power plants to the west with Northern Virginia, the region could experience rolling blackouts or the kind of massive failure that hit New York in 2003.

The critics, however, point to Dominion's data, which show that any threat of rolling blackouts would primarily be during peak hours on the days of the year with the highest power demands.

That amounts to a few hours on a handful of days, typically during the depths of summer when air conditioning units are at full tilt, said Mitchell S. Diamond, a consultant who worked for many years as a vice president in charge of an energy group at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm. Diamond, who lives in Loudoun, is voluntarily advising several anti-power line groups.

"The solution that Dominion is proposing looks grossly out of proportion to the need they are trying to solve," Diamond said. "They are using scare tactics to justify this project."

The problem, he said, could be fixed by increasing capacity on existing lines, encouraging conservation and building several small "peaking plants" that kick in on high-consumption days.

Many national energy experts agree that the industry is too reliant on high-voltage transmission lines, which they say disfigure the landscape and, more importantly, provide a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Simply improving the technology of existing lines, for instance, can improve their carrying capacity by between 30 percent and 50 percent, said Kurt Yeager, executive director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a policy research group.

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