Here Comes the Sun

Solar panel harness energy of the sunby James A. Bacon

By some measures, solar energy looks like the most cost-effective path for Virginia’s electric utilities to achieving Environmental Protection Agency targets for reduction in CO2 emissions. A solar-intensive scenario has the lowest average levelized cost of four alternative scenarios explored in the 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) published by Dominion Virginia Power today. But the power company still has major concerns about how the inherently variable power source could be safely integrated into the power grid.

Dominion submits an annual IRP to the State Corporation Commission providing a 15-year outlook on what facilities and fuels will best meet customers’ electricity needs at the lowest cost in an efficient and reliable manner. Despite reservations, the 2015 plan views solar more favorably than did the 2013 plan.

Dominion had to grapple with big uncertainties in the 2015 study because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet set final targets for Virginia to reduce its CO2 emissions. The targets in the draft EPA guidelines call for Virginia utilities to make 38% reductions by 2030. But the McAuliffe administration and the State Corporation Commission pleaded for relief on the grounds that the draft targets were so stringent. The EPA is expected to issue final rules next month.

Dominion explored four broad strategies for attaining the draft EPA goal: a solar plan with a high concentration of solar resources; a co-fire plan, using natural gas to reduce the carbon intensity of eight coal-powered units; a nuclear plan, which would construct a third nuclear unit at North Anna Three; and a wind plan, with significant on-shore and off-shore wind development.

Dominion did not recommend any one plan over the others. A letter accompanying the submission of the IRP said that other plans, or even hybrids of the plans, might be considered.

A portfolio risk assessment of the four plans factoring in such variables as natural gas prices, coal prices, electricity demand, CO2 emission prices and capital costs over a 25-year period showed that the levelized average cost for solar exceeded that of the “least cost” plan (which would not achieve EPA compliance), but it was the least expensive of the four alternatives. Wind was the most expensive.


According to the cover letter, the cost of compliance above the least-cost scenario range from $4.3 billion for Plan A: Solar to $15.3 billion for Plan D: Wind. However, the IRP stressed the hazards of integrating a large amount of solar power into the electric grid. The problem stems from the intermittent nature of solar — it generates electricity only when the sun is shining. States the IRP:

The intermittent availability of solar energy due to cloud passage causes sporadic injections of energy into the grid, impacting key network parameters, including frequency and voltage. While the grid may not be adversely impacted by the small degree of variability resulting from a few distributed PV (photovoltaic) systems, larger levels of penetration across the network or high concentrations of PV in a small geographic area will make it difficult to maintain frequency and voltage within specified limits. Addressing grid integration issues is a necessary prerequisite for the long-term viability of PV generation as an alternative energy resource.

Significant resources would have to be dedicated to maintaining grid reliability in the face of the wide variability in solar output. Development of a technology to store solar power, which would help level out power flows, is “paramount,” Dominion says.

The anticipated growth of solar PV energy generation will result in significant challenges to the Company’s grid as well as the interregional grid as a whole. … The industry needs an understanding of the critical threshold levels of solar PV where significant system changes could occur. The nature and estimated cost of those changes are still unknown at this stage, but these costs, particularly at the higher penetration levels, could be substantial.

In a statement released before Dominion’s IRP went public, a coalition of environmental groups said that Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., which also submitted its 2015 IRP today, need to make “utility-scale investments” in offshore wind and solar energy, while also making it easier for customers to generate their own solar-generating resources on their own property.

“Dominion has stated that building solar is beneficial for customers because it is cheaper than market purchases of of a grid that consists primarily of coal and natural gas,” says the press release under the name of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Yet all renewable resources in Dominion’s territory amount to just 2% of the company’s energy mix. Dominion’s latest proposal for a new 20-megawatt solar farm in Remington, Virginia, equates to just one-tenth of 1% of Dominion’s 17,500-megawatt generation fleet.”

The statement did not address the impact of large-scale solar development upon the reliability of the electric grid.

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  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Still not getting email notices of comments…

    I can only give praise on your Virginia-based journalism. I think you scooped the entire Va Press on this!

    In terms of “unreliability” , I offer this:

    ” To deliver the flexibility required to meet our energy demands on a real-time basis, the industry is increasingly turning to fossil fuels for peaking capacity to supplement renewable generation. One of the most attractive technologies currently available to address this need is a fast-start, natural gas combustion turbine. Two plants operating in California (the Lodi Energy Center and El Segundo Energy Center) and two more in Texas in final design/early construction (the Panda Temple Power Project) are good examples of this fast-start technology. With two gas turbines as its main drivers, the El Segundo Flex Plant can quickly generate up to 300 megawatts of power in less than 10 minutes, allowing the plant to effectively back up intermittent renewable power generation to maintain a steady, consistent and reliable supply of power to the grid.”

    I also note the news: Dominion seeks Va. OK to build $1.3 billion gas-fired plant
    By Associated Press July 1 at 4:35 PM
    RICHMOND, Va. — Dominion Virginia Power is seeking regulatory approval of a proposed $1.3 billion gas-fired power plant in Greensville County.”

    This is near Emporia – in the corridor for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and south of the Surry Nuke Plants – and south of the proposed James River transmission line – from Surry …

    so now the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. Dominion wants to use frack gas to power – at least one Natural Gas fast-start plant to deal with peak loads and I presume variable solar…

    and at 1.3 billion dollars – a choice made with respect to future nukes I suspect.

    It’s beyond me – why Dominion cannot lay out it”s strategic plan – that involves the pipeline and new nat gas peaker plants and new powerlines across the James.

    I think an integrated strategy released to the public – would seriously marginalize the opponents making them look small … and obstructive but apparently Dominion is like some large slow-moving beast like those elephant things in Star Wars.. ( All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) walker, also known as the Imperial Walker)

  2. JohnS Avatar

    The enviros say they want off-shore wind, but I suspect that’s with the caveat that the wind farms are as far “off-shore” as possible. Like nearer to international waters than the Virginia coastline.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Looking forward to digging into this report (there goes the Fourth). If memory serves, last year the utility went to great lengths not to reveal some of its cost data in the IRP — and the SCC told it to reveal more. Let’s see if this one is bit more forthcoming. Based on your notes, Jim, maybe it was. I’m intrigued that the costs for the solar and nuclear plan are as close as they are. Solar doesn’t only fail on cloudy days — there is this phenomenon called NIGHT that interferes as well.

    But as noted, we still don’t know what the EPA is going to set as Virginia’s targets – and the delay in releasing that leads me to repeat my earlier assertion that the EPA is going to relent to a certain extent. The legislative calendar includes a meeting on July 13 of the joint Commission on Electric Utility Regulation (CEUR). Perhaps they expect to have an EPA decision to chew on by then.

    Always remember – utilities make their money on their equity. They like to build plants. Solar, gas, nuclear, doesn’t matter. They like to build.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think if we characterize the issue by giving more importance to the views on the extremes that we should – we undermine our ability to reach some level of going-forward consensus.

    But it’s not just the far left that complains about energy-producing or related structures.

    All over Virginia – we have people who oppose the physical presence and visibility of wind turbines but powerlines… even pipelines… In other words it’s not enviro-only issue but when we cast it that way – we drive more wedges – IMHO.

    I think this report from DOminion is earth-shaking…. It may well just be a cynical exercise so Dominion can say – “we looked at all possibilities and the answer is still the same” – we need coal …etc…

    I still do not buy the excuse that solar is “unreliable” when gas fired plants that can vary output in minutes… are the perfect complement.

    And I saw a number that I’ve not seen before (my own lack of learning) – that

    it takes 10 acres for one megawatt of solar power….

    then I think about places like south central and southwest Va where there is vast undeveloped and no longer farmed land available… and if you don’t like that idea – vast – undevelopable and un-farmable land available…

    but to put this more in perspective – Dominion also just released plans for another gas-fired plant near Emporia and it is said to be sized at 1600 megawatts. To get that much solar – you’d need 1600 x 10 (acres) = 16,000 acres.

    640 acres to to the square mile 16000/640 = 25 square miles. That’s 5 miles square…

    The next time you are headed to the beach or other destination – take a minute to look at the vast, vast areas that are currently not used for much of anything… and especially so the medians and shoulders of the interstate itself.

    Now – that large a scale of solar – in plain site is ALSO going to engender complaints – no doubt.

    okay , so let’s review. People , not just “greenies” don’t like turbines, nor powerlines, nor pipelines, nukes, powerplants near where they live, .. nor .. I’m quite sure – 5 miles of solar instead of trees. Perhaps a middle ground in on roofs of structures.. eh?

    so – let’s not make this about greenies opposed to turbines but rather too many people think electricity comes from the good fairy and are apparently just fine with unseen mercury and other air emissions that do affect people’s health as well as the planet’s health.

  5. TBill Avatar

    My potential concern would be Dominion may be looking at options which allow keeping the coal plants running, which necessitates building zero carbon options for the new plants. “Correct” approach may be shutting down coal plants and going with natural gas. I say “correct” because “correct” presumes I agree with the EPA CPP approach.

  6. Acbar Avatar

    Overall, I’m convinced Dominion looks at these options in terms of what will result in the lowest electric rates in the medium range given the unambiguous constraints it faces. But they aren’t unambiguous; that’s the problem they (and the VSCC) have to deal with. From their point of view the EPA needs to say simply, do this, or don’t do this — not, do this if, and maybe then again do that if, but perhaps try this alternative if you prefer.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Oh.. that must be why they want the Va Congressmen to “rein in the job-killing EPA”, eh?

    geeze.. seems like yesterday that the VSCC and Bill Howell …said something like ” “The independent, nonpartisan analysis of the State Corporation Commission confirms that President Obama’s environmental policies could devastate Virginia’s economy.”


    1.3 billion for a gas-fired plant is … a lot of jobs… any way you cut it…
    and of course 5 billion for a pipeline ain’t chump change either.

    it occurred to me that showing planned gas plants along the proposed line , even potential ones might win a few hearts and minds.. offering free gas for local schools… , etc..

  8. […] energy alternative on a risk-adjusted basis is solar power, Dominion concluded in its IRP. (See “Here Comes the Sun.”) However, the report emphasized that assessment does not take into account the expense […]

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