Why Can’t Dominion Do Big Wind Projects?

A wind farm in Texas

A wind farm in Texas

 By Peter Galuszka

Down in the swamplands and farmlands of northeastern North Carolina, construction has begun on a huge new wind farm that will be the largest so far in the southeastern U.S.

Iberdrola Renewables LLC, a Spanish firm, has begun construction on the long-awaited $600 million project with financial help from Amazon, which also plans a solar farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The Tar Heel project will stretch on 22,000 acres and could generate about 204 megawatts of power.

The curious part of this is that the farm is only about 12 miles of the Virginia line northwest of Elizabeth City, N.C.

That’s not far at all from the Old Dominion. But Dominion Resources, Virginia’s leading utility, has been sluggish in pushing ahead with wind, citing concerns about cost. It pulled the plug on an offshore pilot project involving only two wind turbines that would have a relatively tiny power output off of Virginia Beach.

So why were renewable energy firm executives and public officials celebrating yesterday in North Carolina and not Virginia?

That’s an easy one. North Carolina has a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewables. Virginia has a similar plan, but being a “pro-business” state, Virginia has made it voluntary. So, Dominion doesn’t really have to do anything at the moment to push to wind, solar or other renewable.

It might have more incentive to do so when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizes rules on its Clean Power Plan later this year, but no one really knows what the final form will be.

Nonetheless, Dominion has marshaled its money and its lobbyists to change how regulators over see it in this regard. The General Assembly, some of whose members get huge contributions from Dominion, hurriedly passed a bill this session changing the rules in ways that Dominion wants.

To be sure, Dominion has some wind farms in other states. But here in Virginia, it is pitching the old saw that wind power is too expensive and unreliable and so on.

It may have been at one time. When Iberdrola pitched the plan to put 102 wind turbines on 22,000 acres in N .C., the common wisdom was that the southeast just doesn’t have the natural wind power. The winds are too light, usually.

But this changed when new technology allowed wind turbines to go from about 260 feet into the air to more than 460 feet or almost as much as the Washington Monument. Once that happened, the Carolina wind farm became a go. Of course, critics say that wind turbines have negatives such as their capacity to slice apart birds and be an eyesore.

What’s better for humanity, however? Coal or even natural gas plants or ones that have no pollution, especially carbon, footprint?

Another interesting aspect of this story is how Amazon is getting involved. The retailing giant is becoming an electric renewable utility in its own right. It wants to have renewable power run the massive servers that it relies upon to do business. But instead of screwing around with hidebound, traditional utilities like Dominion that are often reluctant to warmly embrace renewable energy, Amazon is doing it itself.

Amazon is also putting in a 170 megawatt solar farm in Virginia’s Accomack County which has terrain similar that of Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties in North Carolina that will host the wind farm.

To be fair to Dominion, the utility has a legal responsibility to supply its customers with electricity on a 24/7 basis. It needs a diverse energy mix to be able to do that.

But one wonders why Dominion keeps pushing this bugaboo about wind. Its sister utilities have raised the same cry. That could be why wind represents only 5 per cent of the electrical mix in the U.S., even though there are wind farms in 36 states.

It’s different in other countries. Denmark gets 28 percent of its power from wind. Spain, Portugal and Ireland each get 16 percent from wind.

Isn’t it time for Dominion to get off the dime and do more with wind, rather than using its deep pockets to get paid-for Virginia politicians to do its bidding and change regulatory rules at its whim?

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26 responses to “Why Can’t Dominion Do Big Wind Projects?

  1. Peter, a couple of questions…

    You ask, “Isn’t it time for Dominion to get off the dime and do more with wind, rather than using its deep pockets to get paid-for Virginia politicians to do its bidding and change regulatory rules at its whim?”

    What laws have Virginia’s “paid-for” politicians enacted that inhibit greater use of wind power? Making the Renewable Portfolio Standard voluntary? If that’s what you’re referring to, please explain what self-interested motive Dominion would have in wanting to inhibit wind power. If Dominion wants to build a wind-power facility, it gets to pass on the cost to rate payers.

    Is it possible that the real bugaboo is the State Corporation Commission, which holds to the antediluvian idea that lower electricity rates are in the public interest? Could Dominion be reluctant to submit expensive wind-power proposals to the SCC, knowing that the SCC would turn them down?

    It’s different in other countries. Denmark gets 28 percent of its power from wind. Spain, Portugal and Ireland each get 16 percent from wind.

    True enough. But how expensive is electricity in those countries? Well, let’s see. This chart comes from “Shrink that Footprint.” (I don’t believe that “Shrink that Footprint is funded by the Koch Brothers.)

    “>

    Gee, what do you know, electricity costs three to four times more in Denmark and Spain than in the U.S. — and even more than in Virginia, where electricity costs less than the national average.

    It sounds to be that Peter G., the self-styled tribune of the downtrodden and oppressed, is perfectly willing to stick it to the poor as long as the cause is right.

  2. Jim,
    I’ve been writing about Dominion’s tiny portion of wind power for years and the fact that they are sponsoring you isn’t going to change that reality. Sorry. I thought you said that Dominion’s sponsorship would have no effect on content on this blog. If this is no longer the case, please let me know.
    Secondly, power might be more expensive in Europe, but continued use of fossil fuel only increases global warming and climate change and THAT will impact the global poor.
    I hope this sponsorship deal isn’t turning you into an apologist and protector.

    • Peter, I’ve been disagreeing with you about energy policy and global warming for years, if not decades. My Dominion sponsorship has nothing to do with it.

      Meanwhile, I gather from your changing the topic from the retail cost of electricity to global warming, that you’re conceding my point — wind power leads to significantly higher electricity prices.

      If you want to help the global poor, arguably the single-most beneficial thing you could do is to electrify the world at prices the poor can afford. That would create far more benefit — lives saved, better health, greater economic opportunity — than global warming will do harm.

  3. Off-Shore wind in the ocean is enormously expensive, so that explains Dominion’s go-slow approach on the ocean wind project. So the valid question is, why not more on-shore, land based wind power in Virginia? Historically, as Peter has said, one explanation is that the wind-maps have not been too favorable to Virginia, we just do not have as many wind resources. However, according to Peter, the newer Washington Monument height wind turbines have solved the “lack of wind” problem. We need a wind energy expert to chime in on the matter.

    There is an impressive stretch of thousands of wind turbines along the mountain ridge from Somerset PA down to Cumberland MD. I recently took the exit off the turnpike in Somerset and drove down the side roads. Holy cow what a sight. As far as I know, there is no legal reason why Dominion cannot buy space there (out-of-state) and take credit for wind in Virginia. But if you look at the wind maps of the USA, that’s one of our red hot zones for wind energy in this region.

    If we are forced to go carbon-free in Virginia, by EPA and Pope Francis, then I probably prefer wind, solar, trash-to-steam, to large nukes. But we have to realize utilities and elected officials alike tend to prefer large power plants. Just blaming Dominion is not the total answer.

    • “There is an impressive stretch of thousands of wind turbines along the mountain ridge from Somerset PA down to Cumberland MD. I recently took the exit off the turnpike in Somerset and drove down the side roads. Holy cow what a sight. As far as I know, there is no legal reason why Dominion cannot buy space there (out-of-state) and take credit for wind in Virginia. But if you look at the wind maps of the USA, that’s one of our red hot zones for wind energy in this region.”

      We’ve been traveling the same highways and blue by-ways.

      How so called “environmentalists” can enthusiastically endorse such a noisy wildlife killing and scenic desecration of one of America’s scenic treasures, steel towers atop and mountains and gaps of great national historic import, is beyond my imagination.

      Can you imagine the outrage should this epic scarification of America’s heritage be proposed for Nelson County Virginia? That community now so righteously indignant about an underground pipe running through their mountains and valleys would be screaming bloody murder. And rightfully so. But are silent with regard to the rape of the Cumberland Gap. What Hypocrites!

      • Making matters even much worse, if you can believe it, these thousands of bird killing machines that stretch atop mountain ridges from Somerset PA down to Cumberland Md are built across ancient Migratory Bird flyways that carry birds through, and on the winds of, what should be airborne Bird Sanctuaries.

        But now, thanks to our environmentalists and our government’s massive federal subsidies, these airborne sanctuaries have been turned into thousands of airborne slaughterhouses.

        Incredibly, all this slaughter of wildlife is done in the name of saving the environment.

      • Should you want to know what’s built in the center of all this environmental destruction, you should check out this webpage:

        http://www.umces.edu/al/landscape-ecology-appalachian-laboratory

        Wonder who funds, and pays most of the bills for, this “landscape ecology research” going on in and around the Appalachian Crest beneath all these Wind Towers?

        Part of the U of Md. Environmental Center, the “lab” operates out of Frostburg, Maryland, at crest of the Appalachians as its name suggests.

      • I wonder how many reports this Lab has issued on the affect of Wind Farms on the landscape, wildlife, and livability of the Appalachian highlands and crests, and how these mechanical wind farms affect every living thing living under them, nearby, or merely passing through.

        Surely with all the University scientists working on these issues up there at the lab, at least one has had the courage and character to investigate and reach conclusions on the obvious possibilities, given the taxpayers great expenditure of money and resources on this Lab.

      • Give ’em hell Reed! Right on!

        Do we want government mandated quotas for so much solar and so much wind and so much small hydro – or do we leave it up to the utility to come up with the best tradeoff between cost, proven tech, reliability, and public acceptance among the “renewables” options? Solar is reaching a tipping point that wind hasn’t come near.

        • “Do we want government mandated quotas for so much solar and so much wind and so much small hydro – or do we leave it up to the utility to come up with the best tradeoff between cost, proven tech, reliability, and public acceptance among the “renewables” options? Solar is reaching a tipping point that wind hasn’t come near.”

          Acbar, you raise excellent points.

          The Federal government needs to back off from its highly intrusive roll that is now micro-managing (and hence destroying) free market forces that are critical to low cost, reliable electric power in America.

          Electric power, its cost, efficiency, and reliability, are critical to the growth of our nation’s economy and its security, as well as to the overall security of our nation against those who wish to do us harm.

          The free interplay of legitimate free market forces and market driven decisions by private industries based on their assessment of those free market forces, are essential for the cost effective development of ever cleaner, more affordable, more flexible and reliable energy.

          Our Federal Governments current micro management of the power industry, and our Federal Governments ever more ideology driven selection of winners and losers via mandates and subsidies (not to mention its ongoing “wars” on segments of the market), is now:

          1/ ballooning the price of energy paid by Americans,

          2/wasting vast amounts of public monies and resources on Fool’s Errand Ventures going nowhere, while at the same time these Federal policies,

          3/ divert those funds and resources from (and so thwart) the development of much needed innovations that can succeed in the marketplace and enhance our environment,

          4/ Instead these policies mandate building a highly vulnerable, inefficient, and unreliable infrastructure for this nation’s future power generation.

          All this we see increasingly around us everywhere.

          For example, the idiocy of the steel wind towers on the Appalachian Crest and other critical flyways throughout the United States that destroy vast quantities of migratory birds and scenic landscape “so as to protect our environment”.

          Not only does this government mandated technology desecrate our environment and decimate America’s avian wildlife, it also is grossly expensive and totally inefficient in production of energy and use of natural resources, a monumental, indeed criminal, waste of money, crony capitalism and crony science at its worst.

          The adverse consequences of these Federal policies ripple throughout our economy and institutions and private industry, doing great harm to them all, and to our nation. And most particularly to those citizens within our nation who are the most vulnerable which now includes not only the poor, but also growing portion of all citizens, save for the very wealthy.

  4. Is anyone besides me becoming a bit tired of PG’s continuing to issue his snide comments in re Dominion’s sponsorship of BR?

  5. John B,
    This blog is supposed to be open to comments, including mine.

  6. Meanwhile, Peter ought to ask the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors why they oppose Dominion’s plan to build a wind turbine farm in the county. The Not In My Back Yard syndrome is a powerful force across Virginia. The same phenomenon that hampers building gas pipelines and electric transmission lines also hampers the building of wind power.

    See: http://m.bdtonline.com/news/wind-turbines-in-tazewell-county-dominion-objects-to-ordinance/article_2dfe8af2-1163-11e5-b07e-9349caa80d56.html?mode=jqm

  7. Jim,
    Excuses, excuses. Why is that an independent group in NC is already shovels in the ground? Why isn’t Dominion farther along? I don’t know about Tazewell County but lots of Tidewater officials liked the wind turbine pilot project but that’s kaput.

    Also, while I’m here, your comparison of the electricity costs of Denmark, Spain, etc. is apples and oranges. Of course, they don’t have the readily available energy sources that they do here, do they? And I’m not trying to play your hand of cheap power, etc. Solar and wind will get cheaper quickly. Solar already has. And when one pushes fossil fuel, especially coal, one never factors in the damages to health and environment, does one? We always hear about how renewables are heavily government subsidized, but as I have said a zillion times on this blog without effect is that nukes are a pig in slop. That industry has gotten federal subsidies out the wazoo. A new nuke approved in Georgia will get billions in federal loan guarantees. It is the only way building a reactor plant makes economic sense.

    I think the more interesting story here is why a upstart firm like Amazon can make so much progress in renewables and traditional utilities like Dominion can’t seem to (maybe they don’t want to).

  8. Wind energy projects planned for Botetourt, Pulaski counties

    A wind energy company that wants to build a turbine project in Botetourt County is also pursuing similar plans in Pulaski County.

    Both projects are in the early stages of development, a spokeswoman for Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy said Monday.
    “We hope to be in a position to build one or both projects in 2017 or 2018,” Dahvi Wilson wrote in an email.

    Apex officials are expected to be on hand Tuesday in Botetourt County, where members of the board of supervisors and the planning commission will begin discussing an ordinance to regulate utility-scale turbines, which convert wind to electricity through metal windmills as tall as 500 feet that sit along ridgelines.

    Although the specific plans could change, Apex is envisioning up to 25 turbines on private land about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock. The slow-spinning turbines would tap into nearby utility lines, providing enough electricity to power 20,000 homes.

    so my question is why not Dominion?

    and next question – if folks over that way don’t have a problem with mountaintop removal… why not this?

    but here’s my big problem…

    it was not hard to find existing wind turbines nearby in Md as Tbill did (and I’ve seen them also) – nor planned ones in Va… so what is it with those who seem to have the “Whatever Dominion tells us must be the case”… views?

    It was not the SCC that wrote Dominion’s INTEGRATED RESOURCE PLAN and even if the SCC intruded – it still does not mean Dominion be inhibited from saying what they think.

    So I agree with Peter – why are quite a few others finding wind not out of the question and Dominion another view… but I sorta agree that continuing to poke Jim about Dominion might be aggravating to some folks.

    Just for the record – I do find Jim a little slanted at times.. on some of these issues and he too needs someone to provide an opposite viewpoint…

    All that said and congrats to Jim – BR is prospering .. and let me give a plug for VPAP VaNews: Virginia’s Best Paper Route

    which is in my view one of the better news aggregators of Va news and it has some wind turbine news worth reading.

    congrats to BR and to VPAP

    • Having a sponsor is not bad if its identity is disclosed and people are free to comment about the sponsor and its issues.

      I’m not a big fan of Dominion. It’s distribution network maintenance is bad, albeit getting slightly better. But it doesn’t trim trees as most electric companies do. I don’t think it’s because of tree huggers either. I think it doesn’t do proper maintenance to save money. Frankly I don’t care how it generates electricity so long as it follows the law, provides reliable service and keeps rates as low as reasonably possible.

      If people don’t like what Dominion is doing, go to the VSCC. Just threatening to do it about our crappy distribution line got the attention of one its local engineers. He looked at the outage record and the maintenance costs. And within six months my neighborhood got two new distribution lines. It’s not that hard boys and girls.

  9. Larry,
    Thanks for your post. As for the Dominion sponsorship, I have always been uneasy about it even though obviously, it is Jim’s blog and his decision. I, however, have to see if I want to continue working on this blog. The original idea was to get a balance — Dominion and perhaps a green group — as sponsors. But when Jim negotiated with Dominion, they insisted on having the right to pull their money if they didn’t like another sponsor BR got. Jim agreed.

    That’s his choice and there’s technically nothing wrong with sponsorships. But the energy debate involving Dominion is extremely important and controversial. My worry is that Dominion will get an inside feed of ideas to Jim. He will be inclined to do that extra effort to explore certain documents because he has income from Dominion.

    I get none of it and wouldn’t want it. But if I want to come up with another view of those very documents, I have to do it on my own dime. And I have to pay for my Internet and phones and heat, too.

    This situation is potential destabilizing and it really depends on how Jim handles it. One blog I know, Blue Virginia, has taken a strong stand against Jim’s new sponsorship and has written critically about it. They no longer recommend BR to its readers.

    So, this really is an issue and it is worth keeping an eye out. Although I have no ownership in this effort, I have put in thousands of free hours in it because I think it is an important service to Virginia when so many traditional news outlets no longer provide the analysis and reporting that is badly needed.

    Sure I have a point of view, but so does Jim. The back and forth is vital.

    But I frankly have found some of Jim’s recent blog items (not all) a bit on the public relations side for Dominion and have said so.

    As far as I am concerned, the jury’s still out about the new status of BR.

    If I think it is becoming unfairly influenced by Dominion my next step will be a very simple one.

    • Everybody brings biases and economic interests to this table, and at least Jim’s new relationship with Dominion is out in the open.

      Opinions are like, well, belly buttons and everybody has an opinion on what Dominion’s generation mix should be. Some have a rational basis and some are just politics. My preference is low cost with low environmental damage and I have absolutely no problem with on-shore wind being more of the mix. The fuel price is sure attractive. Having been clued in years ago about Iberdrola’s leases, I’ve been expecting this development in Eastern NC and the fact that it has taken so long, and still has so many hurdles to clear, demonstrates why Dominion has probably been wise to go slow. The environmental community is filled with hypocrites and I sure hope Peter is the first to tell them they need to shut up and let this project go forward. I don’t want any whining about the spoiled view, or the power lines, or the piles of dead birds at the bottom of the pylons. Once Peter has done that, maybe his desire to dictate to Virginians what their power mix should be will carry a bit more credence.

  10. A little more info: (first sentence is important)

    North Carolina is considered to have some of the East Coast’s best wind resources, but the state has proven notoriously difficult for developing a commercial wind farm. The Amazon project has managed to avoid the conflicts that have sunk proposed wind farms in the past: widespread opposition in tourist areas, interference with military flight paths and the potential for bird kills in seasonal migration routes.

    Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article27125410.html#storylink=cpy

  11. Steve, Getting a little snarky there. Please don’t ask me to be a cheerleader for wind or anything else. As for “credibility,” I am too old to give a damn anymore. I have been covering Vepco/Dominion since 1974..

    TBill,
    You are right. I used to work in that part of the world. Migratory waterfowl are an issue because Eastern NC is the wintering spot for many snow geese, whistling swan and the like.

    The military is there, too. There are several busy bombing ranges such as the Dare County range. Navy and Air Force and Marine jet fighters zoom towards them at very low altitudes. A fraction too low and wham. I gather that the wind farms would be north of the area.

    Plus, the CIA has its special secret explosives and weapons training camp at Harvey Point on the Albermarle Sound. It is suspected to be one of the places they had a mockup of Osama bin Laden’s dwelling for the raid in Pakistan.

    These are considerations.

  12. re: ” The environmental community is filled with hypocrites and I sure hope Peter is the first to tell them they need to shut up and let this project go forward.”

    that’s a little selective in the tarring… we have no shortage of folks who oppose powerlines… also.. who claim to “care about the environment”.

    ” I don’t want any whining about the spoiled view, or the power lines, or the piles of dead birds at the bottom of the pylons. Once Peter has done that, maybe his desire to dictate to Virginians what their power mix should be will carry a bit more credence.”

    the whole bird thing is ignorant as heck. let’s get some facts on this:

    1. Domestic and feral cats: 200 million
    2. Power lines, collisions and electrocutions: 25 million
    3. Collision with houses or buildings: 25 million
    4. Vehicle collisions: 14 million
    5. Game bird hunting: 5 million
    6. Agricultural pesticides 2.7 million
    7. Agricultural mowing: 2.2 million young birds, equivalent to one million adult birds
    8. Commercial forestry: 1.4 million nests, equivalent to 900,000 adult birds
    9. Communications towers: 220,000
    10 Aircraft – 9000

    Wind turbines accounted for 16,700 kills. But wind power is expected to grow tenfold over the next decade.

    I have yet to hear the outrage and hand wringing over these other “killers” of birds. Methinks it’s yet another one of those issues that gets twisted

    Finally – someone tell me what is wrong with putting turbines along the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel … too many seagulls slice/diced?

    finally, finally, the bigger and taller the turbine – the slower it turns.. and most birds can relatively easily fly right through them – just as you’ve seen them swoop past your own car… I’m sure.

  13. Let the free market rule when so manu utilities are monopolistic? The idea is very naive.

  14. The more I read Reed’s statement about electricity and the free marker the more baffled I am. Once again, utilities are generally monopolies. That is why they are regulated. Do we have to go back to the Gilded Age days of Rockefeller and Carnegie to see what monopolies can do even if they are “capitalist?”

    We’re not talking about a “free market” at all here. What’s more, much of the regulation of utility pricing is done at the state, not federal, level.

  15. Peter, keep working on it. You’ll figure it out.

  16. The cell phone? Or energy policy?

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