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Coal fuels less and less Virginia electricity. But when should utilities pull the plug on plants?

Dominion Energy’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, Va., 2019.
Dominion Energy’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, Va., 2019.(Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong)
Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 12:23 PM EDT
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When Dominion Energy broke ground in 2008 on the largely coal-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling called it “the largest economic development project in the history of Southwest Virginia.”

Today, the facility, the last coal plant to be built in Virginia, remains a local economic force, tipping more than $8.9 million in property taxes into Wise County’s coffers in 2020. But that investment comes at a price. According to Dominion’s own calculations, the continued operation of Virginia City is expected to cost utility ratepayers — none of whom live in Wise County — $472 million through 2029.

Those numbers have become key touchstones in a struggle over how fast Virginia should wind down its coal fleet, with the utilities pushing to keep their remaining large investments in service through 2040 or 2045 and many environmental and consumer groups arguing that closures should happen far sooner, preferably by the end of the decade.

“From a utility’s perspective I think the question to be asked is, ‘Do the benefits of continuing to operate this facility outweigh the costs to the customers?’” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Both sides have emphasized different costs and different benefits. Advocates for faster closure highlight the declining use of coal plants to provide customers with energy, the additional costs ratepayers will have to shoulder to keep them running and the need to stop emitting carbon. Utilities meanwhile point to their power reserve obligations, local economic impacts and the cost of rapidly rolling out renewables to replace shuttered coal generators.

Keeping Virginia City afloat, said Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani, “helps us provide reliable power for our customers and also plays an important role in Southwestern Virginia with hundreds of jobs and significant local revenue while helping clean up millions of tons of waste coal and thereby improving regional water quality.”

Cleveland, however, described Virginia City as “a power plant in search of a reason to exist.”

“I think you can both close the coal plant and provide the necessary assistance to Wise County all for less money than it now costs Dominion customers to keep the thing open,” he said.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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