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ENERGY Year of Decision

Debating Coal's Cost in Rural Va.

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Wise, Va.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

WISE, Va., June 24 -- This is one in a series of occasional reports about regional energy issues.

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If it were possible to build a coal-fueled power plant in Virginia without controversy, it would happen here. In the state's Appalachian southwest, there is coal in the hills, coal in the rail cars, and coal in family histories that stretch back to picks and shovels.

Apparently, it's not possible.

"I am opposed to this plant," Wise County resident Jaculyn Hanrahan told the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board on Tuesday. "Because I am opposed to respiratory illness, smog, neurotoxins and acid rain."

Dominion Virginia Power wants to build a large coal-fired plant in a mountain hollow here to meet statewide demand pushed upward by Northern Virginia's air conditioners, laptop computers and other electrical devices.

The utility has been met by strong opposition, however, fed by a region-wide hostility to new power projects and a national backlash against the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with coal. On Tuesday, people in a high school auditorium argued a question that would have seemed ridiculous to their grandparents: Should coal be burned for power in Virginia coalfields?

"This plant will be the greatest thing to come to Wise County in our lifetimes," said Gerald Collins, a local mining engineer. "I don't want to pay a higher cost for electricity just because somebody thinks that coal is dirty."

Dominion's proposal calls for a 585-megawatt plant, big enough to power 146,000 homes, to be built on an old strip-mine site in this hilly region near the Kentucky border.

The plant has been approved by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the state's utility regulator. Now it faces a major hurdle: requesting a pair of air-pollution permits from the air pollution control board. That board heard testimony Tuesday, and could announce its decision as early as today.

The Dominion plant's fuel would come largely from Appalachia, but most of its electricity would not stay in that area.

Instead, Dominion officials said much of the electrical power would be sent more than 375 miles away, to highly wired Northern Virginia. The company's demand for electricity is expected to grow 20 percent in 10 years, with much of that coming from the Washington area.

Dominion officials said there is no feasible way to meet the demand without burning fuel to produce energy. By comparison, it might take 875 wind turbines, at a much greater cost, to provide the same amount of power as this single coal plant.


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