Comment closes Wednesday on permit for giant new natural gas power plant in Charles City

By: - March 19, 2019 4:03 am

Coal fired units at Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station would close by 2024 under the Clean Economy Act that passed the General Assembly in 2020. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

A proposed new natural gas-fired power plant in Charles City County, which, if built, would be among the largest power generators in the state, has sparked few objections, even as other new gas infrastructure has faced a contentious path to approval. 

Only three people spoke at a hearing hosted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality March 5 on the granting of a “prevention of significant deterioration” permit for the planned Chickahominy Power Station.

The permits are required for the construction of any new air pollution source that emits more than 100 tons per year of any of a set of pollutants identified by DEQ, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, among others.

For Charles City Supervisor Bill Coada, who attended DEQ’s March 5 hearing, there was little to fear from the proposed natural gas power station.

“Of course we have concerns about the air quality,” he said. But, he added, “if you compare it to a coal-fired unit, you’ll find these are much cleaner.”

The Chickahominy Power Station is being developed by Chickahominy Power, LLC, a subsidiary of Balico, LLC, that was formed for the purpose of developing and operating the facility. Plans submitted to the State Corporation Commission and DEQ describe it as a combined-cycle natural gas generation facility with three turbines that will be capable of producing 1,650 megawatts. By comparison, Dominion Energy’s recently finished Greensville combined cycle power station is 1,588 megawatts and the company’s coal-fired Chesterfield Power Station is the largest fossil-fuel plant in Virginia at 1,640 megawatts.

As an independent power producer, Chickahominy would sell its power directly to the PJM Interconnection wholesale market.

Located just over half a mile east of the intersection of Chambers and Roxbury Roads, the project’s 185-acre site surrounds Dominion Energy’s existing Chickahominy Substation and is crossed by two of Dominion’s transmission lines and a Virginia Natural Gas pipeline. 

Documents from DEQ show that of 10 proposed emission constituents, seven are above the threshold set by the department to classify a facility as a major stationary source of the pollutant. These include three types of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide equivalents.

Mary Finley-Brook, an associate professor of geography and environmental science at the University of Richmond aired concerns about the level of emissions that the plant is expected to produce at the March 5 hearing and recommended that the project be sent to the State Air Pollution Control Board for review.

“The one actually that concerns me the most would be the greenhouse gas emissions, so the carbon dioxide equivalent,” she told DEQ. “One of the main reasons why I think this permit should be rejected is because we are looking to limit our greenhouse gas emissions from our fossil-fuel sector.”

Steve Fuhrmann of Providence Forge also cited worries about emissions.

“We already have a higher incidence than normal of both [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma in this county, and any additions to our polluting atmosphere … is of great concern,” he said. (VDH maps show that relative to other areas of Virginia, Charles City County and the surrounding region show higher incidences of asthma.)

An engineering report by DEQ has found that “approval of the proposed permit is not expected to cause injury to or interference with … health.” As a further safeguard, the department has also attached to its draft permit the requirement that the facility carry out continuous emissions monitoring, which will constantly track and record the pollutants the power station is producing.

A ‘sudden surge of interest’ 

Still, for some residents, the proposed Chickahominy Power Station is only the tip of the iceberg.

The project is the third major energy generator proposed for the county in the span of four years. In 2015, the Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit for the C4GT power station, another natural gas facility that Michigan-based NOVI Energy says it plans to develop on 88 acres less than a mile from the Chickahominy facility.

The C4GT facility, which has not begun construction (earlier this month, the SCC granted its certificate of public convenience and necessity a two-year extension), has a planned capacity of 1,060 megawatts. 

Finally, this spring, the board is considering ambitious plans by Utah-based sPower to construct a 340-megawatt solar farm on more than 2,000 acres of land previously used for timber. While that project has not yet received the special use permit it needs to move forward in the county, the Charles City Planning Commission showed little opposition to it, voting 5-1-1 to recommend its approval.

If all three facilities are built, Charles City County will become one of Virginia’s biggest power producers, according to data collected by DEQ.

“Geography has dictated this sudden surge of interest in Charles City County,” Coada said.

Balico director of development Jef Freeman, Jr., said growth in Virginia’s data centers is a primary driver of Balico’s interest in the Chickahominy project.

“It’s really driven by the economic activity that’s going on in the region,” he said. “Data centers themselves require significant amounts of energy to support what they do and very reliable power.”

However, many of the companies building data centers are increasingly pushing to power them with renewable energy.

Charles City County, for its part, has highlighted the desire to develop its industrial assets in its 2014 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for the creation of a second industrial park, industrial reserve areas and a new industrial corridor overlay district.

Still, the handful of residents at the March 5 hearing expressed qualms about how the combination of new power generators might affect air quality overall.

Stanley Faggert, the DEQ’s minor new source review coordinator, said the agency had included the projected emissions from the C4GT plant in its air quality modeling for the Chickahominy Power Station.

“We do model the background and we take into account existing sources around the facility,” said Michael Dowd, DEQ’s Air and Renewable Energy Division director. “It’s something we look at carefully.”

Fuhrmann asked that if DEQ decides to grant the permit, it take steps to do additional monitoring, as the closest monitoring station, at Shirley Plantation, sits in the opposite direction from prevailing winds relative to the Chickahominy Power Station. Dowd, however, said that the Shirley monitoring station “is darn close as far as monitoring goes” and observed that “many of these air quality impacts are regional in nature and not local.”

For Coada, the question comes down to not only the need for Charles City County to expand economically, but Virginia’s broader attempts to embrace clean energy.

“When you look at what it’s replacing,” he said, “it’s actually doing the commonwealth a favor.”

Not everyone agrees.

Thomas Hadwin, a former electric and gas utility executive in New York and Michigan who lives in Waynesboro, said that approval of the project “may not be good energy policy in the long run.”

Besides emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases, he said, the plant would consume a large amount of Virginia Natural Gas’ supply to the region, which VNG has indicated is constrained.

Furthermore, Hadwin questioned whether the demand exists in Virginia for two new major natural gas plants.

PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Virginia, is expecting capacity to significantly outstrip demand in the near future, according to data from the organization. Dominion has said it has no plans to build new combined-cycle natural gas facilities.

And C4GT, which this March petitioned the SCC to extend its certificate of public convenience and necessity for an additional two years, justified the project’s delay on the basis of “unexpected change in market for additional electric generating capacity.”

“These people are trying to move into a marketplace that’s already flooded with capacity,” said Hadwin.

Freeman, however, said that Chickahominy Power would not be pursuing a project that it didn’t think was viable.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to determine this kind of project,” he said, adding that “even with the two projects that are proposed, neither are assured of proceeding.”

The comment period for DEQ’s draft permit for the Chickahominy Power Station ends Wednesday.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.