Dominion projects new gas plants, advanced nuclear will be needed to meet soaring demand

Latest long-range plan shows data centers and electrification are driving rising power needs

By: - May 3, 2023 12:02 am

A Dominion Energy employee surveys the natural gas-fired Greensville County Power Station which began commercial operations in December 2018. (Dominion Energy)

Dominion Energy says it will likely need to continue building new fossil fuel and nuclear generation to supply electricity to its Virginia customers over the next 15 years, according to the utility’s most recent long-range plan.

“The priorities of the Company have not changed — to provide reliable, affordable, and increasingly clean power to its customers,” the utility wrote in its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan, a nonbinding 15- to 25-year roadmap required by state law every three years and based on forecasts from regional grid operator PJM Interconnection. “However, this year the long-term projected amount of power needed in the [Dominion] Zone materially increased.”

Dominion says the steep rises in demand are linked to accelerating data center growth and, “to a lesser extent,” electrification, including the transition to electric vehicles. The findings are in line with 2021 predictions from the University of Virginia’s Energy Transition Initiative.  

“Since 2019, the Company has connected 75 data centers with an eventual capacity of 3 GW,” Dominion wrote in the IRP, which was filed with the State Corporation Commission Monday.  “These data centers will ramp up to this capacity over time, so the Company expects this growth to materialize over the next 3 to 5 years.” 

Data centers and electric vehicles will drive up Virginia electricity demand, UVA forecaster predicts

While the IRP is considered a “long-term planning document” based on a snapshot of current circumstances, and officials caution rapidly changing energy markets can mean its projections can quickly become out-of-date, the plan offers one of the clearest indications of how the utility sees Virginia energy needs and expects to meet them.

In the 2023 IRP, Dominion is proposing to accommodate the rising demand through several possible plans that could include the construction of up to eight small modular nuclear reactors starting in 2034 and up to seven new gas plants while also keeping two coal-fired plants running.

As the name suggests, SMRs are smaller versions of nuclear reactors that can be manufactured off-site and built in locations that may not be feasible for larger nuclear plants. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been a vocal proponent of the technology, which is still under development. 

While including compliance with renewable energy requirements set out in the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the IRP also discusses continuing to use certain fossil fuel facilities until the late 2030s.  Under the 2020 VCEA, the state’s landmark law outlining a path to decarbonize the electric grid by midcentury, the utility can run carbon-emitting facilities until 2040 and then must petition the State Corporation Commission to continue running them if there are any concerns over grid reliability.

The potential new gas combustion turbines would be used to help meet peak grid demands, said Dominion, which pointed to strains on the grid caused by a Christmas 2022 cold snap that produced the highest demand for electricity in the company’s history in Virginia. The addition of seven new plants would more than double the company’s existing gas fleet in Virginia.

In addition to the new projects, various scenarios propose keeping online the coal- and biomass-fueled Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center and the coal-fueled Clover Power Station, which the utility jointly owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, until at least the late 2030s. Prior IRPs had projected Clover would close in the middle of this decade. 

All of Dominion’s plans incorporate large but different amounts of solar, wind and battery storage technologies, including electric school bus batteries.  Dominion is required by the Virginia Clean Economy Act to generate certain percentages of its electricity from these sources by certain years.

“This ‘all of the above’ approach ensures we can reliably serve our customers ‘around-the-clock,’ especially on the hottest and coldest days of the year,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia in a news release. “Our plan balances the benefits of renewables with the reliability of ‘on-demand’ power so we can meet the growing needs of our customers.”

Youngkin, who frequently uses the term “all of the above” to describe his energy plans, issued a statement Monday expressing support for the IRP.

Gov. Youngkin wants a small modular reactor. What exactly is that?

“Much more work remains to be done to guarantee Virginians reliable, affordable and clean electricity,” Youngkin said in a statement. “This commonsense recognition by Dominion is an important first step, and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to accelerate the deployment of critical infrastructure and new technologies such as advanced nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture, and battery storage, that maintain the integrity of Virginia’s grid and ensure the state controls its own generation destiny.”

House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, voiced similar sentiments, saying the IRP “reflects reality.”

“It has been evident that the demands of the Virginia Clean Economy Act are incompatible with reliable, abundant, affordable energy,” Gilbert said. “Without an ‘all of the above’ plan that includes additional nuclear and other renewables, delayed retirement of existing base load facilities and the construction of new, dispatchable facilities, the only alternative will be to import as much as 300 percent more electricity from out of state – likely from sources that are not carbon-free.” 

But Democratic legislators and environmental groups took a different tone, arguing the plan is a diversion from proven, less costly renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and battery storage.

“From my perspective, what they ought to be talking about is speeding up the next offshore wind project or figuring out ways to deploy more solar in potential areas instead of talking about gas peakers,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “The SCC is going to have to balance whether investing in a gas turbine that is required to be retired by 2040 makes financial sense to ratepayers.”

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, the House patron of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, called the reliability concerns “scare tactics” and said the IRP notably doesn’t include ways to reduce demand, such as energy efficiency efforts. He also criticized the plan’s assumption that Virginia will leave the carbon market known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and ts reliance on small modular reactors.

“Everyone acknowledges we  don’t know how to commercialize SMRs,” he said. “Never been done in the world.” 

Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Nate Benforado, an advocate for renewables development, said the IRP is Dominion’s “attempt to get back into Youngkin’s good graces” following two months of debate over utility profits and the state’s regulatory system during the 2023 legislative session.

“I don’t think what’s there is the best path forward,” said Benforado. “It’s a shame.”

Benforado said the plan goes against state law requiring decarbonization by calling for new investments in fossil fuels.

“These are huge increases in emissions at a time when we know by law [they] are required to be zero,” Benforado said. “To me this goes the exact opposite direction in significantly reducing our emissions.”

Kim Jemaine, director at Advanced Energy United, a trade association that represents renewable energy technology manufacturers, expressed skepticism of Dominion’s reliability concerns.

“Reliability is at the forefront of the VCEA. It pairs investments in solar, wind, existing nuclear, energy efficiency effort and energy storage,” Jemaine said. “Dominion largely ignores these resources and instead the utility focuses on natural gas, despite major price volatility there and advanced nuclear which is not yet commercially viable.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.