The Collegian
Saturday, April 13, 2024

Dominion Energy’s Peaker Plant sparks concern with climate activists in Richmond

<p><em>Member of Third Act Glen Besa speaks to protestors about how harmful the peaker plant can be in late October.</em></p>

Member of Third Act Glen Besa speaks to protestors about how harmful the peaker plant can be in late October.

Every Friday, retired nurse Lee Williams wears a cardboard cutout of Dominion Energy's CEO being carried by a bright blue Tyrannosaurus rex. As the T. rex sways in front of Richmond’s Bell Tower, climate activists boo at the effigy, expressing their opposition to Dominion Energy's proposal to build a new “peaker” plant using what activists called a technology as dangerous as the meteor that made dinosaurs extinct.

“I think Dominion is stupid to be doing this to our planet,” Williams said. 

The protests, organized by Virginia’s chapter of Third Act, are called “Fossil Fools Friday,” with the word “fools” referring to Dominion CEO Robert Blue and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The weekly demonstrations condemn the energy company’s proposal to build a peaker plant capable of producing 1000 megawatts of electricity during periods of heavy demand.

Dominion Energy emitted 16,814,178 metric tons of greenhouse gas pollutants in 2022, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Facility Level Information on GreenHouse Gases Tool. This measurement estimates plant emissions in terms of their equivalence to carbon dioxide as gases contributing to global warming.

The facility is proposed to be built at a 94-acre site located in the James River Industrial Center, which is within three miles of a population that is 44% people of color with a per capita income of $35,366, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool. Nationally, two-thirds of peaker plants are located near communities where 29% of households are low-income, according to Clean Energy Group’s Peaker Plant Mapping Tool. 

Nicole Martin, president of Chesterfield’s NAACP, said in a press release that Dominion should look into alternative renewable energy methods instead. 

"This community has endured close to 80 years of air and water pollution associated with Dominion's recently retired coal plant," Martin said. "They don't deserve to be burdened with another polluting fossil fuel power plant in their backyard when alternatives exist."

Dominion held a homeowners association meeting for residents who would be affected by the facility in 2023, but no one was there, Martin said. Families in these areas are working multiple jobs, Martin said, so he thinks Dominion must have a better approach to inform residents. 

“You gotta reach the people in some way, shape or form. Put out surveys,” Martin said. 

Dominion’s new plant will be capable of emitting an additional 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to 5 billion miles driven by an average gasoline-powered car, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

This is called a peaker plant because it would provide power during extreme weather events or at times of peak demand for electricity. 

These types of plants are designed to start generating power urgently at high volume. As a result, peaker plants produce greater amounts of the pollutants nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide at faster rates than regular power plants designed to run continuously, according to research by Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit that tracks power plant emissions and provides clean energy initiatives.

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Dominion’s proposal states that the new plant, which Dominion calls the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, would have a maximum run time of 3,240 hours a year or at about 37% of its capacity. Most peaker plants usually run for a couple hundred hours per year, according to a fact sheet by Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

Shelley Robbins, project director of the Clean Energy Group, said Dominion classifying the facility as a “peaker plant” is false advertising. Robbins called it a “dirty intermediary.” 

Dominion Energy is “all in on renewables,” the company’s spokesperson Jeremy Slayton wrote in an email to [publication]. Dominion’s new plant is needed because renewable energy facilities that use wind, solar and battery storage are unable to power houses for as long as natural gas plants, Slayton wrote. 

“As customer demand nearly doubles over the next couple of decades, we’re going to need more reliable power on the hottest and coldest days, not less,” Slayton wrote. 

Dominion Energy applied for a peaker plant permit on Aug. 1. The application, which went to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, said the plant will have four simple-cycle combustion turbines with the ability to power 250,000 homes. Slayton wrote that combustion turbines will have technology that includes selective catalytic reduction systems to lower nitrogen oxide emissions. The turbines will also be capable of operating on “an advanced gaseous fuel blend” consisting of natural gas and 10% hydrogen. 

But observers say the reductions often fail to be realized in these types of plants. Abbe Ramanan, project director of the Clean Energy Group, said the technology for combustion turbines is unable to operate when peaker plants are starting on and turning off.  The technology turns off during shift loads and nitrogen oxide emissions go unregulated, Ramanan said. 

Studies show that having a 10% hydrogen blend with natural gas can lead to a 3% to 5% reduction in carbon emissions. Because hydrogen burns hotter at a faster rate than methane, the blend of natural gas and hydrogen can increase the nitrogen oxide emissions, Ramanan said. 

Peaker plants in a best-case scenario would cost $115 per megawatt, while battery storage costs $46 per megawatt, according to Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Electricity, a firm providing estimated cost of generating electricity from different types of power plants. 

Williams, who has been dressing up in a dinosaur costume for the last six weeks on Fossil Fools Friday, said she was vehemently opposed to the peaker plant because customers would suffer the burden of the high electricity rates. 

“Ratepayers will be charged to cover the costs of this gas plant, which will cause a disproportionate energy burden on Richmond folks living in older homes that are not energy efficient,” Williams said. 

Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, signed into law by Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam, requires Dominion Energy to generate electricity from 100% renewable sources by 2045.

The VCEA states Dominion Energy can petition the State Corporation Commission “on the basis that the requirement would threaten the reliability or security of electric service.” Chesterfield County resident and Third Act member Glen Besa said he was worried Dominion would take the route of petitioning and producing carbon emissions with the proposed peaker plant. 

Slayton wrote that it was too early for Dominion to decide whether it should petition the state commission about running the peaker plant beyond 2045.  

The VCEA also requires Dominion to meet specific amounts of solar, offshore wind and battery storage by 2035, and Slayton wrote Dominion had “exceeded the first interim target for 2024.”

Dominion Energy needs to seek approval from Chesterfield County’s Board of Supervisors and secure an air permit from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality before proceeding with the proposal.

 Contact Executive Editor Ananya Chetia at ananya.chetia@richmond.edu 

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