Dominion Energy's downtown Richmond building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Dominion Energy, Virginia's largest electric utility and a major U.S. energy company, is headquartered in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Back in 2017, two Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia helped Dominion Energy Virginia secure legislation allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for a new pumped hydro storage facility to be built in the coalfields region.

The law even deemed the project “in the public interest.” Three years later, Dominion included a new pumped hydro project in its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan. The 300-megawatt facility would be built in Tazewell County and come online in 2030.

But — surprise, surprise — details in the IRP reveal the project to be unneeded and its price exorbitant. That leaves just one question: Will the State Corporation Commission approve the IRP anyway?

Pumped hydro stores surplus energy using two reservoirs, one at the top of a hill and one at the bottom. When you need energy, you release water from the upper reservoir and let it flow down through a hydroelectric turbine to the lower reservoir. When you have a surplus of energy, you use it to pump water uphill to fill the upper reservoir. Repeat as needed. It’s not high-tech, but it gets the job done.

Today pumped storage is used mostly to store surplus energy at night from baseload fossil fuel and nuclear plants that run 24/7, then use the energy to meet the surge in demand during daylight and early evening hours. As wind and solar become bigger players, pumped storage can also help integrate these variable resources in much the same way that batteries can. 

But pumped storage is land-intensive, and each project has to be designed for its own particular site, making it expensive to develop. Or in this case, very expensive. In its 2017 Annual Report, Dominion said its project would cost up to $2 billion and provide up to 1,000 MW of storage capacity ($2 million per megawatt, not terrible for this kind of storage). Three years later the size has shrunk by 70 percent but the cost has actually gone up and now stands at $2.3 billion ($7.7 million per megawatt, genuinely terrible). 

That didn’t stop Dominion from including the 300 MW of new pumped storage hydro in every scenario of its IRP, not allowing its modeling software the option of rejecting it as unneeded or as more expensive than other options.

What was once an interesting project idea now looks a heck of a lot like another Dominion boondoggle.

As Virginia embarks on a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, the ability to store energy has become a hot topic of discussion. How much do we need, and can batteries do it all? The one advantage that pumped storage has over batteries is that a pumped storage facility can supply energy over a longer duration: 10 hours as opposed to the four hours typical of most batteries. For the rare occasions when you really need those extra hours, pumped hydro can be a solution.

As it happens, though, Dominion is already the majority owner of the world’s largest pumped hydro project. The 3,000 MW facility in Bath County, Virginia, has been in operation since 1985. Dominion earns money by selling its energy storage service to the operator of the regional transmission grid, PJM Interconnection. 

Three thousand megawatts is a lot of storage; the Bath County facility is even nicknamed “the world’s largest battery.” So building more pumped storage would only be reasonable if the Bath County facility were already being used to its maximum capacity (or was projected to max out in the future), and if a new facility could meet a need that can’t be met by alternatives like batteries. Unfortunately for Dominion, neither of those is true. Tazewell is a solution in search of a problem. 

Consumers smell a rat. Dominion customer Glen Besa intervened in the IRP case this summer to challenge the inclusion of the Tazewell project. Besa retired a few years ago as director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club; he is acting on his own behalf in this case, represented by attorney William Reisinger of the firm ReisingerGooch. 

The firm hired energy storage expert Kerinia Cusick. Her testimony points out that the IRP shows the Bath County facility is expected to be used less over the coming years, not more. The IRP projects capacity factors for the facility will decline steadily from 10.7 percent in 2021 to 7.5 percent in 2035. If an existing facility has spare capacity, there is no good case for building another facility like it.

Cusick also compared the $2.3 billion cost of the Tazewell project to an equivalent amount of battery storage. Not surprisingly, the battery storage won hands down. Indeed, Cusick noted, the cost of battery storage has fallen over the years and is projected to continue doing so. By contrast, she found Dominion had understated the costs of the pumped storage project by excluding items like land costs and taxes. (The real number she calculated, unfortunately, is not available to us. It has been redacted from the public version of Cusick’s testimony.)

In sum, there is no need for the Tazewell project, and no economic case to support it. Adding billions of dollars in unneeded infrastructure to Dominion’s rate base will add profit for Dominion shareholders but drive up electricity bills for consumers.

There’s no way the SCC would let Dominion get away with this if legislators hadn’t used the magic words “in the public interest.” Now the question is whether those magic words are all it takes to ram a project through.

The SCC takes its job of protecting ratepayers seriously; it does not welcome legislative interference. Only grudgingly did the SCC allow itself to be coerced into approving Dominion’s offshore wind pilot when the legislature proclaimed the pilot project in the public interest. In that case, after pointing out the high cost and risks borne by ratepayers, the SCC order concluded by grumbling, “Recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be ‘in the public interest’ make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.”

But the offshore wind pilot was just that, a pilot, and its $300 million price tag represented an investment in a new industry that is expected to become a mainstay of Virginia’s future energy supply. Legislators knew the costs, and judged them acceptable. 

Pumped hydro, on the other hand, is a mature technology. The proposed Tazewell project won’t lead to bigger and better things, driving costs down along the way. Legislators deemed it “in the public interest” for Dominion to locate a pumped storage project in the coalfields because they are desperate for jobs there. But they were misled about the actual cost. That ought to matter.

If it doesn’t matter — if the SCC decides “in the public interest” always means a blank check to Dominion, written by the General Assembly but charged to the account of customers — then legislators need to change the law. We can’t afford another boondoggle.