Questions About Dominion’s Electric Supply/Demand Forecasts

The year 2011 will be upon us shortly. That’s when Dominion Virginia Power says Northern Virginia could begin experiencing summer brownouts and blackouts during periods of peak electricity demand. KEMA, a power system engineering firm hired by Dominion, projects that 17 “overload violations” could occur that year. The number could increase to 67 by 2016.

It is Dominion’s job to issue such warnings. Federal law requires Dominion to maintain transmission reliability for its service area. And it doesn’t take much imagination to forecast the hysteria — and anti-Dominion recriminations that would fly — if the citizens of Northern Virginia were to experience more than two or three such overloads.

No doubt about it, folks, Northern Virginia is facing a serious problem, and Dominion is doing the right thing by running up the warning flag. But is Dominion’s proposed solution — building a high-power transmission line across northern Virginia’s piedmont — the only one? It is certainly the solution that Dominion prefers, for it dovetails nicely with the power company’s strategy for increasing shareholder value by building more power plants in isolated spots, connecting them to population centers with transmission lines, and generating a low-risk but favorable return on investment under “partial” reregulation. But is it the only alternative?

Dominion says it is, and cites an extensive study by KEMA in support. In addition to scrutinizing alternative transmission-line routes in mind-numbing detail, the study covers the following options:

Demand Side Management (DSM). Demand-side management — conservation — would be of limited value, KEMA says, because it cannot be targeted to the specific weak links in the transmission chain — the Mt. Storm/Doubs circuit in particular — where the overloads will occur. To alleviate the projected 226 megawatt overload at Mount Storm would require reducing Northern Virginia-wide demand by 2,850 megawatts, or about 40 percent — more than anyone thinks is realistically possible.

Distributed generation. The idea of installing small, dispersed power generators throughout Northern Virginia won’t work either, KEMA says, because they, too, cannot be targeted to the optimal locations. Each 1,000 megawatts of effective capacity would require 1,100 megawatts of distributed generators. More than 31,000 new units would be required by 2011, and 77,000 by 2016.

Larger power plant. Building a large power plant inside Northern Virginia is impractical also, says KEMA. The facility would have to generate 3,000 megawatts, making it one of the largest power plants in the country, and it would have to come on line by 2011, which alows insufficient lead time to license and build. Alternatively, three to five smaller plants might do the trick, but they would require upgrades to transmission lines in Northern Virginia.

Here’s what KEMA did not study: A combination of alternative strategies. Conservation + distributed generation + one or two smaller power plants in the Northern Virginia region.

The fact that conservation strategies alone cannot solve the problem is no reason not to pursue them as a partial solution. The same applies to the fostering of numerous, small-scale power sources across Northern Virginia, and also to the idea of adding one or more small power plants in the region.

And here’s what’s not clear: The maps and tables in the KEMA study include the notation “Possum Point off”, but there is no explanatory text. Possum Point is a four-unit power plant overlooking Quantico that burns natural gas and oil. Do Dominion’s projections of electric supply and demand assume that these units will be phased out, as the two oldest units have been already? If so, what are the reasons? Can a case be made for running them for several years more as a bridge to a longer-term solution? Again, I don’t know the answers. I’m just asking questions.

(Update: Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman, reports, “We have no plans to shut down the Possum Point Power Station units. Units 1 and 2 are retired, Units 3 and 4 were converted from coal to natural gas a few years ago, Unit 5 uses oil as its fuel and Unit 6 is the newest unit, a natural gas, combined-cycle unit. Total output of the site is about 1,630 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 407,500 houses at peak demand.”)

Of course, the longer Dominion pursues the transmission-line option to the exclusion of other options, the closer it gets to a fait accompli. At some point, enough time will have gone by that there are no other options. To preclude that possibility, the State Corporation Commission should be prodded to pursue multiple tracks.

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6 responses to “Questions About Dominion’s Electric Supply/Demand Forecasts”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “…it would have to come on line by 2011, which alows insufficient lead time to license and build.”

    Well, that’s ridiculous. You will note in my previous post about power company models, the whole problem boiled down to being proactive about lead time, otherwise you are screwed.

    Jim is correct in noting that knocking off the arguments one by one is insufficient: the best option is probably some combination.

    The argument against distributed generation seems particularly weak: of course more and smaller generators can be targeted to optimal locations. The idea of 77,000 new small generators seems daunting, but it may not be nearly as bad as described. Once you get the system down, WalMart and Starbucks don’t seem to have any problem proliferating, and this argument ignores all the other benefits.

    But here is the real problem. If that much power and power distribution is required does anyone believe that only one transmission line will fix the problem?

    No, of course not. This is the opening salvo for a bunch of new lines, meaning everyone could be a target for takeover.

    Our eminent domain laws were originally designed to obtain valuable and rare sites for needed gristmills, and they haven’t changed much since then.

    But there is a very real diffference between taking an isoated spot and using a series of independent takings to assemble a contiguous property. The vlaue of the assembled property is far more than the value paid for the individual pieces. So while Dominion may pay for what they take, they are a long way from paying for what it is they will get.

    If there is that much demand for power, benefiting that many people, then it shouldn’t be any problem to ensure that the few people affected are well and adequately compensated.

    A state commission made many recommendations to fix inadequacies in the eminent domain rules, but none of them have been enacted.

    Some emotional, scenic, and historic things can not be compensated for, but that is no reason not to ensure that those things that can be compensated are compensated fairly.

    AND, the side benefit is that if the economic tables tilt a little bit, then Dominion may have to rethink the entire strategy. What is going on now is a classic divide and conquer operation, with the state corporation commission an active partner.

    Virginians deserve better. Sure, we need reliable power, but we need to have it equitably, or we are all at risk.


  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    RH – Some good points. From a telecom perspective, network reliability generally demands more than one path between critical points. I suspect that the same principle applies to electricity.

    It, therefore, stands to reason that one power line is probably not sufficient. Under today’s technology, there is a need for multiple lines. Where does technology go from here?

    Moreover, while conservation and efficiency is important, we live in the information age, which is highly dependent on affordable electricity. Further, if we want to reduce transportation demand, we will need much more teleworking, which, in turn, demands more affordable electric power.

    Where does technology go from here?

  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim and RH make good points but there is a bigger issue:

    We will try to track it down after we finish “The Problem With Cars,” another bigger issue that is only nipped around the edges.

    The big issue in the electricity debate is the tragic fallicy of big generation and transmission.

    There is more energy wasted in “generation, trasmission and distribution” than reaches the end user.

    Like the Large, Private Vehicle and the Interstate system to provide Mobility and Access there is a fundmental problem with the whole system.

    Neither will ever work.

    It is physics not policy.

    Business-As-Usual is on the back of several tigers.

    When the market is up the word is “do not rock the boat, we need the profits to raise stock value.”

    When the market is down the word is “do not rock the boat, we have to preserve prospertiy or we will lose the next election.

    As we note in “A New Metric for Citizen Well Being” a Backgrounder at consumption and growth have to be turned to conservation and sustainablilty.

    Big Private Vehicle systems (not just big private vehicles) and Big Power Grids (not just big transmission lines) are a dead end.

    What is dead at the end is citizens, democracy and free markets.


  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I keep thinking – one of the best ways to understand what is going on is to think about it as if you were Dominion Power …looking out for number one.

    You will take the path that is the best combination of “least resistance” and best bang for the buck for the stockholders.

    It’s simple not in the best interests of Dominion to pursue more complicated.. more risky strategies unless the state forces them to.

    so the moral of the story is that Dominion is a creation of our GA.

    They have/had the power to get Dominion the appropriate marching orders – you know – the ones that best served the interests of Virginians…. and instead they feared Dominion more than voters.


    re: multiple corridors

    how about one large “big cable” corridor that then “fans out” when it gets to an urban area.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Maybe someone can answer a question. The Dominion spokesperson said “Total output of the site [Possum Point] is about 1,630 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 407,500 at peak demand.”

    407,500 what? Homes? Businesses?

    I thought that 1 megawatt would power 750 to 1000 homes. If that is true, the Possum Point plant could power every home in Northern Virginia including Stafford and Fauquier and still have a lot left over.

    And the Dominion December 2006 Report to Investors, their 3 expansion sites are Possum Point, North Anna and Kincaid.

    New slogan for Virginia? Garbage In, Power Out.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    It doesn’t matter whether the stock market is up or down. You can make money going either way. What is important is that you don’t blind youself with dogma as to what is causing the changes.


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