Surry-Skiffes Transmission Line Inches Closer to Approval

The proposed 500 kv line would connect with the transmission infrastructure at the Surry Power Station, as seen in this photo of the Surry switchyard.

The proposed 500 kv line would connect with the transmission infrastructure at the Surry Power Station, as seen in this photo of the Surry switchyard.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not yet granted Dominion Virginia Power a permit to build a transmission line across a historic stretch of the James River, but it has rejected the argument advanced by foes who argued that electricity demand in the Virginia Peninsula could be met by other means.

“Additional analysis further demonstrates that there is a need for this project from both Dominion’s and the general public’s perspective,” Col. Jason E. Kelly wrote in a letter to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation last week, reports the Daily Press. Kelly said the Corps review “found nothing to indicate that Dominion’s information regarding the practicability of the alternatives is flawed or incorrect.”

Preservationists and conservationists are distressed by the prospect of high-voltage transmission towers interrupting vistas of “Virginia’s founding river” from Jamestown and other locations in the state’s historic triangle.

Foes argue that there are alternatives to the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line — they just cost more than Dominion wants to pay. The power company could install scrubbers at the coal-fired Yorktown Power Station, which Dominion is retiring to meet clean air goals, or convert the units to natural gas. They also say that demand-response tariffs and other energy-conservation measures could dampen demand, while a lower-capacity transmission line could run underneath the river at significantly less expense.

While the Corps appears to side with Dominion on this particular issue, it has not seemed to be in any hurry to issue a permit. Dominion claimed that it needed to commence construction of the transmission line last September to avoid rolling blackouts required to protect the integrity of the electric grid. Such incidents, Dominion has said, could occur dozens of times a year, depending largely upon weather conditions.


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16 responses to “Surry-Skiffes Transmission Line Inches Closer to Approval

  1. still don’t understand why – if Virginia Natural gas can put a 24″ gas pipeline across the James in two years why that can’t be done to convert Yorktown to natural gas.


  2. There’s little doubt that a pipe could be laid in the riverbed in 24 months.

    The problem is that there is no gas to put through it.

  3. no gas?

    where is VNG getting that gas for their HRX pipeline?

    where is Dominion getting it for it’s new gas plants Brunswick County ?

    • Larry, the HRX connects to existing upstream pipelines whose capacity is fully utilized. The HRX simply allows VNG to transit the gas between its north of and south of the river operations more efficiently.

      ALL gas pipelines have an upper capacity bound. A huge load increase, such as repowering a coal plant to run on gas (as big as Virginia Beach’s existing natural gas load essentially) almost always entails building new pipes to connect all the way back to the big interstate pipes, or the construction of new transmission pipes from a newly developed gas field, like the Marcellus Shales, such as the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other projects so opposed in the other side of the state.

  4. Well I guess this proves we can post photos with our comments!

    The prior answer to the “why not coal-to-nat gas conversion?” question was insufficient gas supply in the area. Yesterday it was said in one article that the Army Corp concurs that that, and several other options, are not feasible.

    Of course, this begs the question if the concerned citizen side is getting fair treatment by the Army Corp. I don’t have that answer, but on the surface it appears the media is accepting the Army Corp assessment.

  5. I’m asking where the new Brunswick plant is going to get it’s gas?

    and if the Brunswick plant is going to get gas – why can’t that gas also supply other plants like Yorktown?

    Dominion is not just proposing to move power across the James.

    where is that power coming from?

    don’t tell me Surry unless you also want to tell me what areas Surry is serving right now and what will replace that power if Surry is redirected?

    The Siffes-Creek proposal is not just about a power line.

    it’s about power generation needed to replace Yorktown.

    where is that replacement power coming from?

    and yes – we did get carried away with the pictures…

  6. Just 3 miles of new construction and 26 miles of replacement pipeline, plus added compressor capacity will add 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of capacity to the Columbia Gas system in West Virginia and Virginia (almost equal to the 1.5 Bcf/d of the ACP). This extra capacity is expected in 2018.

    The Columbia Gas pipeline already connects to the Virginia Natural Gas line that goes to Chesapeake and Norfolk. From my limited understanding of the geography in that area, no pipeline under the river would be required to connect to the Columbia/VNG line. Some expansion of existing lines might be required to access the greater volume of gas, but impacts would be reduced because it would be on existing right-of-way.

    The Brunswick and Greensville plants are currently served by a spur from the Transco line that was completed last fall. When it is time to connect the Greensville plant, a 4 mile connector will be added to the pipeline to the Brunswick plant. This $490 million 98 mile pipeline is sufficient to supply these two plants throughout the term of their service. No ACP required.

    As adequate takeway pipelines are completed in the Marcellus in 2017, much of the demand in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states will be supplied directly from the Marcellus. This frees up several pipelines in the Transco corridor. As much, if not considerably more, capacity than the ACP will be available to move gas from the Marcellus to the Southeast. Some of the money paid for the pipeline to the Southside plants helped to make this north to south reversal of flow possible.

    After supplying Virginia’s needs, there will be plenty of capacity in existing pipelines (Transco) to serve the requirements in North Carolina. Much less construction (some might be on existing right-of-way) would be required to connect the NC power plants than is proposed for the the ACP.

    The cost to move gas in existing pipelines is much less than the transport fees in new pipelines, so ratepayers save money. FERC staff agrees that at least 40% more pipeline capacity has been proposed than is needed to transport the expected capacity of the Marcellus.

    From what I understand the Skiffes Creek issue relates to transmission overload during peak periods rather than an inability to meet the typical demand. It seems that some mix or energy efficiency and demand response, plus some solar on commercial and industrial buildings would reduce the transmission flow at peak periods enough to deal with the overload and line sag issues. Although, the Corps of Engineers doesn’t think so (are they energy experts?). If that is not enough to reduce the sag on transmission lines during the summer peak, some local gas-fired peakers could be used. Or as a last resort some moderate sized combined heat and power units could be installed at the major manufacturing facilities that would generate power and reduce the load.

    This seems to be an easier problem to resolve than it has been made out to be if we just stopped trying to apply old fixes to new problems.

  7. I apologize if I seemed flippant in my response to this situation. I am not familiar with many of the details. My main point is that a different outlook might yield better choices. The utility response for better than 100 years has been to build more infrastructure. I am not certain such a response serves us well in many situations anymore.

    Imagine if in the 1980’s we said to the computer industry that we would reward them for the size of the computers they would build. We would have missed three decades of faster, cheaper, better computers and the era of distributed computing.

    If we rewarded the energy industry for giving us cheaper, more efficient, and more reliable energy systems – what might we get? This is not Dominion bashing, or NIMBY, it is simply a quest for common sense and a better outcome.

    If the issue with Skiffes Creek is truly one of congestion and overload of the transmission system during peak usage, then we should do something about reducing the peak. If it is a more generalized issue of not enough generation, then we should provide the lowest cost sources of generation matched to the conditions we are trying to alleviate.

    Neither solution necessarily requires massive new transmission lines, nor substantial new power plants. Although after a thorough unbiased evaluation of the options, this might prove necessary. But it is doubtful that an unbiased assessment has truly occurred. All too often what is served up are two poor choices and a fight ensues over which one should be selected.

    The same can be said for the pipeline issues. The Department of Energy says that 46% of the capacity of the U.S. natural gas transmission network is not utilized. It makes sense then to use existing pipelines first, whenever possible. And next to add more compressors to existing pipelines (as Columbia Gas is doing) to increase their capacity. The last and most expensive option, both economically and environmentally, is to build something new. It is not being “anti-infrastructure” to seek to use existing resources first.

    Utilities are caught in a bind. Utility executives are rewarded by serving the investors. Presently higher returns come only when they build something (15% for pipelines, 14% for transmission lines and about 11% for power plants). Energy efficiency and allowing third-party solar actually costs them money. So you can understand why they are making plans to build as much as possible.

    Regulators are supposed to balance the needs of the investors with the interests of the ratepayers. This is the typical give and take that occurs in nearly every state. But this regulatory balancing (if they were so inclined) has been foreclosed in Virginia by the General Assembly. For the next seven years, Dominion gets to pass on the costs and keep the savings (some say to the tune of $1 billion).

    Both Dominion and the ratepayers would be better off if we spent this time designing a system that is better for everyone, utilities included. The situation with Skiffe’s Creek could be an excellent opportunity to explore a better way of doing things.

    • Not sure I understand why you say “flippant.” No, the regulation of utilities in Virginia is a mess.

      In most states, for example, the portion of the State code dealing with regulating the rates and services of public utilities covers a couple of pages, and the basic law says, in effect, three things: “The utility’s rates and services shall be just, reasonable and non-discriminatory and posted at the commission for public inspection, capital investments or divestitures (larger than X amount) shall require approval of the the commission in advance, and utility facilities (larger than X) shall be located where the Commission approves in advance.” The rest is all done by orders of the Commission.

      But in Virginia, Title 56 of the Code fills an entire fat volume, with page after page of obtuse, micromanaging, sometimes contradictory prose.

      The political imperative is not to rock the boat; to avoid a rate increase now even if it will cost more to fix things later. On the other hand the investment community wants the payoff NOW and to heck with long term planning. The utility resists both tendencies as best it can but utility management is risk averse to a fault. The only one that can break this impasse is the regulatory commission. But here, the SCC is deliberately ham-strung by the GA, plus, Dominion has not one but four major commissions to deal with and an ISO with regional quasi-regulatory authority as well. And on top of that, the GA imposes directly on Dominion many layers of requirements and carveouts and time limits tailored to particular constituencies. It’s no wonder that, in exchange for accepting that mess, Dominion occasionally asks for its pounds of flesh too. This is the worst way to serve consumers, full of wrong incentives and many opportunities for hidden deals and motives.

      The remarkable thing is, despite this mess, Dominion has relatively low rates and a reputation for efficiency and good maintenance and planning. One way it’s managed to do that is to cut deals periodically with the GA to the effect, “if you and the SCC will just leave us alone for a few years we’ll commit to keep rates low.” This creates all sorts of perverse incentives in the long run but it works for now.

      As for that gas pipeline, it’s the exception that proves the rule. The single biggest incentive for Dominion to invest in that solution is, it’s relatively simply regulated, by one federal agency, and not by this Byzantine mess of overlapping State regulators and laws.

      Now, call me flippant for saying so.

  8. The thing about Yorktown is that you have to replace the generation that will be lost.

    the question is – where is that replacement generation going to be put?

    My view is that Dominion CHOSE to replace it SOUTH of the James and to route the power back to the peninsula via a power line.

    they CHOSE that option rather than replacing Yorktown on the peninsula.

    It’s true – you’d have to provide gas to Yorktown – but it’s also true -you’d have to provide gas to a plant south of the James to then be sent via powerline over the Jame to the Peninsula.

    So what Dominion did Choose to do – was build new gas plants south of the James – to replace the power Surry was providing so that Surry power could then be routed over the James to replace Yorktown power.

    Now -I accede to Dominion making that choice – but I’ll not let them claim they had “no” choice but to do that.

    They could have easily decided to move gas under the James as they did to move power from an existing plant OVER the James. It was a choice – and that choice DID involve a scenic impact versus not with under river gas.

    I’m NOT on board with using conservation or renewables instead.

    Some day -perhaps – not just there but everywhere.

    but right now – we’re doing conventional current-technology power.

    but we ought not let Dominion get away with making the choices they did and not be accountable for those choices – and – to have to go back – if enough public disapproval forces it.

    Basically Dominion gambled that they could cause a scenic impact and get away with it.

    time will tell if they were actually able to do it.

    • Looking at Dominion press releases and their IRP it seems that the plans are to close Yorktown Unit 1 (159 MW coal plant) this year. Convert Unit 2 (a 164 MW coal plant) to use natural gas, so there must be adequate supplies of natural gas that can connect to the plant. And close Yorktown Unit 3 (an 818 MW oil-fired plant now used only as a peaking unit) in 2020 because of mercury and other toxic emissions. If someone has more recent or more accurate information, please let me know.

      I couldn’t find the capacity factor for Unit 1, but it is unlikely that it is not very high. It is probably being used as an intermediate load unit primarily in the summer and winter.

      That means there is not very much capacity that needs replacement.

      I am extremely puzzled by LarrytheG’s remark, as to why energy efficiency and solar would not be useful as part of the solution for this issue. Energy efficiency is an established technology. It costs about $0.02 – 0.03 per kilowatt hour, which is about three times cheaper than gas-fired combined cycle units. And it is 100% available and 100% reliable which cannot be said of any other baseload option.

      Much of the concern here is about transmission congestion and overloading during peak periods. Solar is a far lower cost mode of generation compared to gas or oil-fired peaker units; with zero emissions. The conditions that lead to peak usage also lead to peak solar production.

      This is a knotty issue, but a mix of actions now would likely yield a timely result with lower costs and lower impacts than waiting for a showdown over a single proposal that will disappoint many no matter which choice is made.

      • Another variable to factor into the mix: Who pays for what?

        Virginia rate payers would cover the full cost of gas distribution lines. But Virginia rate payers share the cost with other transmission owners across the PJM system (as long has PJM has approved the investment). I’m not sure what the percentage is, but it’s substantial.

        • Interesting thought Jim. Acbar might want to chime in on this. But I would think that most of the cost of the transmission line would be covered in the locational marginal pricing for the energy transmitted on it. If most of the energy originated in Virginia (at another Dominion plant) and was used in Virginia, most of the cost would be borne by Virginia ratepayers. Some costs might be shared by other PJM members when the line is used to move power in or out of of other areas in PJM. Not physically, of course, but in terms of the transaction.

          The difference would be that by being connected to PJM the transmission would be considered interstate and thus qualify for the higher rates of return awarded by FERC compared to the SCC. There is a reason utilities often propose more transmission as the solution to the problem – they make more money that way. This is not a knock on Dominion. It is prudent management to maximize your return. It is a commentary on our policies and regulatory regime to reward utilities for doing things that are not in the interests of the customers they serve.

          Dominion would earn the most by building a transmission line and much less by having energy efficiency and solar pick up much of the slack, especially if they were provided by others. Dominion has to protect their revenues. Without having other means of doing that they will continue to propose alternatives that are more expensive and often result in greater impacts. It is easy to criticize this behavior from the outside, because often it is obvious that there are better options available. But these choices often don’t make sense for the utility under present regulations.

          We will continue to get into contentious arguments about energy infrastructure until we re-evaluate the role of our utilities and pay them fairly for that role. And give them a reason to cooperate with various third-parties in a more open market.

          • TomH, good point about Dominion earning a higher rate of return for an electric transmission line that’s part of the PJM grid. That would be more likely to drive Dominion’s behavior than the issue of who pays for it. From Dominion’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Virginia rate payers or some other utility’s rate payers cover the cost. What does matter is the return on equity the company generates.

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