Another Reliable Energy Provider Abandons VA

Artist rendering of now-terminated Chickahominy Power. Click for larger view.

By Steve Haner

First published this morning by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

A long-embattled plan to build a natural gas-fueled generating plant not owned by Dominion Energy has become the latest victim of Virginia’s patent hostility toward fossil fuels.  Environmental opponents and the incumbent utility will probably join in popping the corks.

Chickahominy Power in Charles City County has posted a notice on its website that the project, once scheduled to start construction in 2019 and begin operation in 2022, is terminated.   Investors are seeking a location in Ohio or West Virginia, and the scope of the project has grown.

Irfan Ali of Herndon, who uses the title managing member and who is the principal investor, now plans to develop data centers to use power from the plant, which is also designed to use hydrogen for fuel if that becomes available and economical.  He also plans to couple it with a carbon capture and storage system.

“And I would have done that in Virginia, so Virginia is losing out in a big way,” Ali said.

Neither Ohio nor West Virginia imposes a carbon tax comparable to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative extracted from Virginians.  Dominion won’t mind having one less competitor bidding against it for those RGGI allowances. Another auction last week set a new record, adding $74 million more in costs mostly passed on to consumers.

But Dominion may also be breathing a sigh of relief because the independent competitor to it would have used the latest turbine technology to produce 1,650 megawatts of power at 65% efficiency and thus a very low cost, about 2.8 cents per kilowatt- hour, with a healthy profit.  Had Chickahominy become a supplier to the regional electricity marketplace PJM, “we would have forced Dominion’s coal plants offline sooner.”

The death of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Virginia Natural Gas Header Project and the continued struggles of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to finish construction have given Virginia quite a reputation.  Ali said his decision, reached last week, will be noticed, and will further damage that reputation around the world.

Environmental opposition was relentless from the start, as was hostility from Governor Ralph Northam (D), who pushed through several bills to eventually end fossil fuel use in Virginia.  The 2021 election changed nothing.  “I am deeply disappointed in Glenn Youngkin,” Ali said. There had been discussions during the election, but “since he got elected I did not hear from one person on the Youngkin team.”  Perhaps they couldn’t have helped, but he didn’t even get a sympathetic ear for his $2 billion investment.

Chickahominy Power was one of two merchant (non-utility owned) power plants proposed for Charles City County that were expected to take advantage of a proposed upgrade in Virginia Natural Gas’s existing pipeline connection between the Transco main trunk in Prince William County and its main service area in Hampton Roads.  The State Corporation Commission imposed financial conditions on the application which VNG later claimed led it to scrap that expansion in 2020.

The other gas generation project, C4GT, terminated right away. It couldn’t secure financing without guaranteed supply, and the SCC wouldn’t allow the expanded supply without secure financing.  Ali, who has financing, called it a classic chicken and egg problem for that other company.

Chickahominy Power then tried another route to secure gas. It sought to build its own 83-mile-long pipeline to connect to Transco near Charlottesville, buying rather than condemning the needed easements and rights of way.  The SCC denied his request to waive regulating it as a public utility, despite its having only one customer.  The final straw came when PJM kicked the project out of its supplier application queue for lack of progress, pushing it back to square one.

West Virginia and Ohio are also in PJM territory, but Ali no longer plans to work through that market. Its hostility to fossil fuel and favoritism toward wind and solar is growing.  It dreams of “LaLa Land where wind and solar meet all the needs,” he said.  His new plan also needs no approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which took a strong anti-gas turn recently under the new Biden Administration regime.

The Virginia proposal enjoyed quite a bit of local support in a rural county in need of tax-paying development, which helped in securing its early state permits.  Local native tribal leaders and the local government spoke up in favor.  But the very poverty of the area was used as a weapon by environmentalists, who claimed building the plant violated economic justice.

Ali chose the location because it is adjacent to a Dominion Power Virginia substation and an existing VNG pipeline compressor station. Exactly which deleterious effects would be created by adding his facility with its tight air permit to the neighborhood were never detailed, as Bacon’s Rebellion reported.  Despite many battles, his state permits held up. He just couldn’t get gas.

Ali is finding a much more welcoming climate in the other states, which are home to the gas from shale operations that the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines were designed to bring to Virginia.

Opponents claim the pipelines were mainly about bringing the gas to export, but this project and C4GT proved otherwise. The death of VNG’s project and the Atlantic Coast project have left Hampton Roads short of gas supply.  It will hinder future economic development in that region. Ironically, it will interfere with plans to make the region a hub for wind turbine manufacturing, which requires the use of gas.

A Virginian since 1980, Ali moved to the U.S. from Pakistan when his father was appointed its United Nations ambassador in 1971.  His father’s family was prominent in Pakistani politics, having had leadership roles during the separation from Great Britain and then the partition into India and Pakistan.

He is the kind of energetic entrepreneur Virginia should be welcoming and listening to. He is instead going away mad, kicking our dust from his shoes.  Whether this loss spurs a change of direction in Richmond only time will tell.