Dominion Gets Initial Approval For Coal Plant

By Tim Craig and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

RICHMOND, March 31 -- Dominion Virginia Power's plan to build a coal-burning power plant in southwest Virginia cleared a major hurdle Monday when it was approved by the State Corporation Commission, despite objections from environmentalists.

Dominion is pushing to build the $1.8 billion plant in Wise County, in Virginia's coal country, as part of a multi-pronged strategy for meeting the state's growing demand for electricity.

Dominion, which has 2.3 million customers in the state, said the plant would be "one of the cleanest" coal-fired facilities in the nation because it would have a sophisticated emissions-control system.

In its ruling, the commission said Dominion could build the plant and pass on the cost of construction to its ratepayers statewide. Company officials say there might be "nominal" increases in residents' utility bills starting next year to offset the cost of construction of the plant.

The commission designated the plant as a "conventional coal facility" instead of one that is "carbon capture compatible," which environmentalists say bolsters their argument that the plant would increase the emission of greenhouse gases that have been linked to global climate change.

"This ruling proves Dominion has absolutely no plan to capture its global warming pollution," said Cale Jaffe, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, part of a coalition of groups opposing the project.

The plant, which would be called the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, still must be approved by the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. Dominion officials hope it will be operating by 2012.

"The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center is a vital part of Dominion's integrated strategy to ensure our customers' needs are met now and well into the future," said David B. Botkins, a Dominion spokesman.

Botkins said the 585-megawatt plant, which could power 146,000 homes, would "meet the rising demand for energy and help maintain price stability over the long term."

Environmentalists are stepping up pressure to try to derail the project before the pollution board approves it.

A group of protesters gathered outside Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's office Monday, demanding to meet with him to express their concerns about the plant. "Coal is an energy source that causes global warming, destroys mountains and needs to be phased out of Virginia's energy portfolio," Richmond activist Jason Levinn said in a statement after the rally.

Gordon Hickey, a Kaine spokesman, said the administration plans to reach out to activists to arrange a meeting with the governor in the coming weeks.

At a town hall meeting in Loudoun County last night, Kaine (D) defended his support for the plant. He said he has faith in Virginia's approval process, which he said relies on science and a thorough assessment of the state's needs rather than politics.

"We've got a need for energy, and we've got to do it in a way that's as clean and as focused on conservation as possible," he said. However, he added, that must be balanced against "the need for reliable and relatively low-cost energy."

Virginia relies on coal for too much of its energy to imagine a future without it, Kaine said. Moreover, by approving newer plants that employ the cleanest technology, the state can retire older, more polluting plants, he said.

The comments came during the ninth public input session Kaine has held this year across Virginia. About 200 people showed up at Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn for the event, which was his first such visit to Northern Virginia since the state legislative session ended in mid-March.

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