Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs




Turning on the Lights:

Virginia's Power Grid


It seems Virginia’s founding fathers had their hands in everything. Dominion Virginia Power, formerly Virginia Electric and Power Company, traces part of its origins to the Upper Appomattox Company canal operation, which was formed in 1795 to secure water rights to the Appomattox River. George Washington and James Madison were among the Appomattox Trustees who formed the company. Almost 100 years later, the company acquired several hydroelectric plants on the river. Jay Gould bought a successor company in 1909 and after many transformations, the present-day utility emerged. 

But Dominion Virginia Power, while the largest provider of power in the commonwealth, is only one of more than 30 entities that electrifies the state. These include investor-owned utilities, such as Dominion and Appalachian Power; cooperatives, such as the Northern Virginia and Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperatives; and municipal utilities, such Bedford or Salem who generate power for the residents in their cities.

Let’s review the basics of how electricity is produced. Generators convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. If you remember your grade school science projects, it all has something to do with the relationship between magnetism and electricity. In power stations, turbines, engines or water wheels convert mechanical or chemical energy into electricity by driving these generators.

Fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, nuclear power and renewable resources, such as water and wind, are among the various sources for generating the mechanical or chemical energy that eventually produces electricity. 

According to Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends (VEPT), 38 percent of the electrical generating capacity in Virginia is coal-fired; 24 percent is nuclear and 20 percent is hydroelectric. Dominion Virginia Power runs nine coal-fired plants in eastern Virginia, as well as two large nuclear plants. American Electric Power, the next largest provider of electricity in the state, operates two coal-fired plants: the Clinch River Plant in Russell County and the Glen Lyn plant on the New River in Giles County, near the West Virginia border.

Demand for electricity is greater during the work day, rather than late in the evening, and increases during hot and cold weather. Smaller oil and natural gas-fired plants provide extra power during peak demand, as do pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities. Dominion Power operates one in Bath County and American Electric Power has one at Smith Mountain Lake. As VEPT explains, “These facilities utilize excess electricity that becomes available during times of excess power supply and/or low demand and pump water into large storage basins above the pumped-storage hydro-electric generator. Later, when power is needed, the water is released to generate power.” 

Electricity is actually bought and sold. Despite the many power plants in Virginia, the electricity produced in the state is not enough to meet all residents’ needs. About 20 percent comes from outside the commonwealth over interstate transmission lines. These large transmission lines are part of a regional network that allows Virginia to buy and sell electricity in wholesale power markets. It also keeps prices lower for consumers. Dominion Virginia Power and American Electric Power actually operate generating units outside the state closer to cheaper sources for producing electricity, such as the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. 

In Virginia, the State Corporation Commission regulates energy utilities. Issues such as rate hikes or the location of transmission lines are subject to its oversight. In recent days, it set a hearing date on building electric transmission lines in southeastern Virginia and denied Allegheny Power a rate increase.

So, what will fuel the commonwealth’s generators in the future? Back in 2001, then United States Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham estimated that demand for electricity would increase in the U.S. by 45 percent by 2020, requiring 90 new plants nationwide each year. Some analysts predict Virginia might have to build one to two new plants a year. There are a few experiments with renewable resources, such as wind turbines or co-generation with paper and chip mills that both process wood and generate power. But stumbling blocks remain. Wind turbines are dangerous for Virginia’s waterfowl – we are right on the Atlantic flyway – and the mills just can’t fuel a 45 percent increase in demand. 

Little did Washington and Madison realize the complex world the descendents of their Upper Appomattox Company would inherit.

NEXT: Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire: Fighting Fires in


-- July 30, 2007














About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.


Read their profile and peruse back issues.