Coal-Fired Power Plants in Virginia

Glen Lyn (Giles County) was too old to justify upgrading further to meet Clean Air Act standards
Glen Lyn (Giles County) was too old to justify upgrading further to meet Clean Air Act standards

After World War II, Virginia's utility companies met the increased demand for electricity by constructing power plants fueled primarily by coal. That energy source was cheap and readily available. Coal-fired power plants could be constructed anywhere near a railroad, so long as there was an adequate supply of fresh water to cool the steam used to spin turbines.

50 years later, that pattern changed due to both pollution control measures and economics. Utilities have closed old coal-fired power plants that were at the end of their useful life, or altered them to use other fuel sources, rather than upgraded coal-fired power plants to burn coal for another 50 years. A Washington Post article in 2014 described the old power plants as an "aging fleet of clunkers," and noted that the facility at Glyn Lyn in Giles County was the second-oldest coal-fired plant still operating - old enough to be collecting Social Security.1

Dominion Power has been closing down old coal-fired power plants built just after World War II, such as the facility at Glyn Lyn (scheduled to close in 2015). The utility chose to built new plants to generate electricity that were fueed by natural-gas. Three small coal-fired facities at Altavista, Hopewell and Southampton were converted to burn wood waste from forestry operations, allowing Dominion to retain jobs in those communities and meet a small portion of its voluntary goal to generate 15% of electricity (excluding nuclear) from renewable resources.

In 2003, Dominion converted the two last coal-fired boilers at the Possum Point plant in Prince William County (units #3 and #4) to natural gas, in order to meet air quality mandates. The metropolitan Washington DC area was in Clean Air Act "nonattainment" status for ozone as well as fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns. Emissions from burning natural gas at Possum Point reduced nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and particulate matter (PM2.5) from that point source. Eliminating the use of coal smoothed the approval by Virginia Department of Environmental Qality of a new Unit #6 at Possum Point, producing 559MW from natural gas.2

regulation to reduce air pollution required point sources such as power plants to cut emissions of criteria pollutants, especially gases that sunlight converted into ground-level ozone
regulation to reduce air pollution required point sources such as power plants to cut emissions of criteria pollutants, especially gases that sunlight converted into ground-level ozone
Source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Metropolitan Washington, DC-MD-VA Air Quality Status 2012

Five generators at the Potomac River Generating Station were built between 1949-57 on the Potomac River, on the upstream edge of Alexandria, to supply 482MW of electricity to fast-growing Washington, DC. The five stacks of the power plant were built unusually low. Taller stacks would have dispersed pollution across a wider area, following the traditional approach where "dilution is the solution to pollution," but airplanes flying into National Airport would have been affected.3

low stacks at power plant in Alexandria, before closure in 2012 and removal of coal pile
low stacks at power plant in Alexandria, before closure in 2012 and removal of coal pile

The Alexandria plant was owned by the Maryland utility PEPCO until deregulation. In 2000, PEPCO sold the plant to Mirant, a private "merchant" firm that had no retail customers. Mirant bet that it could profit by generating and selling electricity at wholesale rates to utilities that would distribute it to customers. PEPCO was required by Maryland's 1999 Electric Utility Industry Restructuring Act to break up its vertically-integrated business and separate its generating and distribution capabilities.4

Residents complained about coal dust coating cars/window sills, even staining laundry. A 2003 meteorological study funded by two local citizens showed that soot deposition was concentrated in the local neighborhood of Alexandria.

Fifty years after the plant was built, the focus was on health effects of fine particles and mercury creating a local health hazard. Mercury, a minor component in the coal, is vaporized in the burning process. As hot exhaust cools in the air after leaving the power plant stacks, the plume of gas moved over Alexandria and then to the northeast (typically). Mercury cooling from the exhaust gas and soot particles may be deposited near the plant - with "downwash" creating a "hot spot" of lung damage and potentially-toxic soil in the local area.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued an air quality permit for nitrogen oxide emissions from the Potomac River Generating Station in 2000, which Mirant violated in 2003. DEQ and then the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) settled with Mirant in 2004, but the City of Alexandria took another approach that year.5

The city tried to use its zoning power to force the plant to close. The plant was constructed before the city created its first zoning ordinance, so use of the site for a power plant was vested (grandfathered) when the zoning ordinance was passed. A retroactive application of zoning that would have forced the plant to close would be a "taking," under the Fifth Amendment. The city tried a creative approach, claiming violation of a 1989 Special Use Permit (SUP) granted by the city entitled Alexandria to revoke all permissions for operating the entire plant.6

The State Supreme Court rejected this effort, while providing some perspective on why an industrial use that was acceptable 50 years ago and had been authorized under Special Use Permits (SUP's) had become a problem for the city. Bottom Line: new residential development, followed by citizen activism, had made the industrial designation inappropriate: (Note: emphasis added):7

Facts and Proceedings
Mirant is the owner and operator of the Plant, a coalfueled power plant located in the City of Alexandria. The Plant began operations in October 1949. The City enacted a zoning ordinance in 1963 which designated the Plant site as "Industrial." In 1989, the City granted the Plant's previous owner, Potomac Electric Power Company, two auxiliary SUPs for the construction of a building addition to house administrative offices and for a Transportation Management Plan. In 1992, the City adopted its current zoning ordinance and Master Plan. Under this comprehensive plan the Plant site was designated a Utilities and Transportation (UT) Zone.

Electric plants were permissible uses in the UT Zone, however, the plants were designated "nonconforming uses" and were required to obtain comprehensive SUPs to operate. The Plant was exempt from the comprehensive SUP requirement because the ordinance designated the Plant as a "noncomplying" use. Zoning Ordinance § 12-301 (June 24, 1992).

Throughout the next decade, the City approved the construction of additional residential units in the vicinity of the Plant. As a result, the Plant is currently bounded on the East by the Potomac River, on the West by an electric transmission facility, and is otherwise surrounded by residential and commercial uses.

In August 2003, two private individuals living near the Plant prepared and submitted a report to the City outlining their concerns about possible adverse health effects associated with Plant emissions. The report was based on a modeling study of Plant emissions conducted by an environmental consulting firm hired by the private citizens.

The study concluded that there was a high probability of adverse effects from the Plant's operations and that Plant emissions likely exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
the coal-fired power plant at Alexandria polluted the local neighborhoods - but all the electricity went to Washington, DC
the coal-fired power plant at Alexandria polluted the local neighborhoods - but all the electricity went to Washington, DC
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Alexandria 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (Revision 1, 2013)

In 2012, GenOn Energy, the utility that owned the facility, closed it permanently. The old facility was relatively inefficient, the cost of coal was high compared to natural gas, and local opposition eliminated any opportunity for tax subsidies or economic incentives to maintain operations.

The most-recent coal-fired power plant constructed in Virginia is the 585MW Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. It was built on a former coal mine near St. Paul in Wise County. The construction of that power plant was an economic stimulus project spurred by the state, as well as a response by Dominion Power to the need for increased generation capacity.

Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (Wise County)
Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (Wise County)
Source: Dominion Resources

In 2004, the General Assembly passed SB651, which directed construction of a power plant to burn coal in southwestern Virginia. The law had multiple goals, but primarily it was designed to increase economic development, spur jobs in that area, and increase property taxes paid by commercial development to a local jurisdiction in the area.

When the specific site was chosen in 2006, Dominion Resources announced that it expected the plant to provide 75 jobs when operating, and to support 250 coal mining jobs. A later Fact Sheet claimed, beyond the short-term benefits in the construction phase:8

Much of the opposition to construction of the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center centered on state approval of the air quality permit. The utility company, Dominion, "sweetened" the deal by committing to convert the Bremo Bluff power plant from coal to natural gas, reducing ozone that might affect Northern Virginia. The "Hybrid" part of the project referred to its ability to create 20% of the electricity from biomass by burning wood waste.

Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center complex near St. Paul
Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center complex near St. Paul
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Saint Paul 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (Revision 1, 2013)

The Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) proposed to build a new coal-fired power plant in Surry County. There was both support and opposition to the proposed facility in the local area. There were only 272 residents of Dendron in 2010, so local opponents had limited resources to participate in the legal and bureaucratic decision process, but non-local environmental groups such as the Sierra Club joined the fight.9

ODEC also considered a site in Surry County, keeping open its political options. The Town of Dendron ultimately approved the project, anticipating an economic stimulus from the $5 billion project. However, the benefits of natural gas as a fuel - rather than local opposition or support - is what altered the utility's plans. In April 2013, the cooperative announced that it would build a new power plant fueled by natural gas in Maryland.10

Compared to natural gas, coal became an expensive fuel at the start of the 21st Century. American Electric Power (through its subsidiary, Appalachian Power) decided to close or convert all of its coal-burning power plants in Virginia by 2016. After 50 years of service, the facilities built after World War II had reached the end of their useful life. Rather than upgrade the plants to increase efficiency and also to meet Clean Air Act mandates, the utility chose to close its 335MW plant at Glen Lyn (Giles County), close one of the three units at the Clinch River Power Plant, and convert the other two units at Clinch River to burn natural gas instead of coal.11

baghouse at Glen Lyn coal-fired power plant, trapping particulates in order to meet Clean Air Act standards
baghouse at Glen Lyn coal-fired power plant, trapping particulates in order to meet Clean Air Act standards

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) also blocked plans by American Electric Power to purchase half of a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia, to replace the generating capacity the company was closing. The SCC objections noted that the purchase would make American Electric Power dependent upon coal for 87% of its geerating capability.12

The Virginia regulatory agency based its decision on the need for greater diversity of energy sources. However, the SCC's action may also support plans for a separate company to build a new 700-megawatt power plant in Virginia. Competitive Power Ventures (CPV) chose to build the CPV Smyth Generation Project at Atkins in Smyth County because of easy access to natural gas via the East Tennessee Pipeline, the ability to distribute power via the 765-kilovolt Broadford–Jackson Ferry transmission line already constructed by American Electric Power, and the economic incentives offered by the Smyth County Industrial Development Authority.

Coal is available nearby with low transportation costs, but power plants are long-term infrastructure investments. Competitive Power Ventures looked at the projected cost of natural gas for the next 20-40 years vs. coal - and rejected coal.

If built, the power plant at Atkins would pay $5 million annually in local property taxes, increasing revenue for Smyth County by nearly 25%. American Electric Power has declined to purchase power from the proposed facility, indicating it has an adequate supply of electricity for the next decade. The 765-kilovolt Broadford–Jackson Ferry transmission line could carry the electricity to utility customers in North Carolina, Tennessee, or even to supply Dominion Power in Virginia, further reducing demand for electricity generated by coal.13

Action by the SCC to encourage electricity generation from renewable resources and natural gas, while discouraging generation from coal, is a clear signal that the state's traditional support for the coal industry has waned. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County could be the last new power plant fueled by coal that will ever be constructed in Virginia.

the CPV Smyth Generation Project in Atkins (Smyth County) is near Apalachian Plateau coal mines, but will use natural gas from the East Tennessee Pipeline
the CPV Smyth Generation Project in Atkins (Smyth County) is near Apalachian Plateau coal mines, but will use natural gas from the East Tennessee Pipeline
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Research into clean coal technology was applied at the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. It uses fluidized bed technology, allowing the plant to burn low-quality coal that previously had been discarded in "gob piles," plus wood waste. The plant also has the potential to capture carbon dioxide (CO2), a pollutant that contributes to climate change. However, no funding has been identified to implement capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide in underground geologic formations in Virginia.

The US Department of Energy invested in a different coal-fired power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, to demonstrate how CO2 could be controlled, in anticipation that the Environmental Protection Agency would succeed in issuing regulations that require new coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20-40%. The economics of carbon capture and sequestration at the Mississippi plant were improved because the CO2 could be piped to an old oil field and used to enhance recovery of remaining droplets of oil underground. Similar oil fields are not available in Virginia, so some other technique will be required if coal-fired power plants in Virginia are to find a way to use waste CO2.14

Links

nationwide, old coal-fired power plants are being closed faster than initially predicted, rather than retrofitted before the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for air quality go into effect in 2015
nationwide, old coal-fired power plants are being closed faster than initially predicted, rather than retrofitted before the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for air quality go into effect in 2015
Source: Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2014 projects more coal-fired power plant retirements by 2016 than have been scheduled

References

1. "Vintage U.S. coal-fired power plants now an ‘aging fleet of clunkers’," Washington Post, June 13, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/a-dilemma-with-aging-coal-plants-retire-them-or-restore-them/2014/06/13/8914780a-f00a-11e3-914c-1fbd0614e2d4_story.html (last checked June 20, 2014)
2. "Control Measures," Chapter 5 of State Implementation Plan (SIP) for Fine Particle (PM2.5) Standard, Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, March 7, 2008, http://www.mwcog.org/environment/air/downloads/pmp/; "Possum Point Power Station," Dominion, https://www.dom.com/about/stations/fossil/possum-point-power-station.jsp (last checked August 6, 2013)
3. "Potomac River Generating Station," SourceWatch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Potomac_River_Generating_Station (last checked August 6, 2013)
4. "The Maryland Electricity Market - A Primer," Maryland Public Policy Institute, 2010, http://www.mdpolicy.org/docLib/20100908_MarylandElectricityMarket.pdf (last checked August 6, 2013)
5. Jerome Brooks, "Mirant Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) - Case Study," Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) presentation at Clean Air Act Enforcement Lessons Learned Work Shop, June 10, 2009, http://www.marama.org/calendar/events/presentations/2009_06LessonsLearned/2009_06LL_MirantPRGS.pdf (last checked August 6, 2013)
6. "Mirant Suit Targets Alexandria," Washington Post, February 10, 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11160-2005Feb9.html (last checked August 6, 2013)
7. "How two accidental Virginia activists have (almost) closed GenOn coal plant," Washington Post, September 3, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/how-two-accidental-virginia-activists-have-almost-closed-genon-coal-plant/2011/09/01/gIQABxA3zJ_story_1.html; "GenOn power plant in Alexandria is set to close," Washington Post, September 29, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/genon-power-plant-in-alexandria-is-set-to-close/2012/09/29/daa355ea-08d7-11e2-858a-5311df86ab04_story.html (last checked August 6, 2013)
8. Wise County Site Chosen For Final Evaluation Of Future Clean Coal Power Station In Virginia," Dominion news release, May 11, 2006, http://dom.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=26677&item=71117; "Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center," fact sheet, Dominion, https://www.dom.com/about/stations/fossil/pdf/vchec_facts.pdf (last checked August 2, 2013)
9. American Fact Finder, Bureau of Census, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/community_facts.xhtml (last checked August 3, 2013)
10. "Electric co-op's Md. project sets Surry plant way back," The Virginian-Pilot, April 23, 2013, (last checked April 24, 2013)
11. "From coal to natural gas," Bristol Herald Courier, April 7, 2014, http://www.tricities.com/news/local/article_e174540c-becd-11e3-a5ee-0017a43b2370.html; "The Future of Power Generation," Appalachian Power, https://www.appalachianpower.com/info/projects/FutureOfPowerGeneration.aspx (last checked April 8, 2014)
12. "APCO assures Smyth residents its pro-economic development, puts focus on rates," Southwest Virginia Today, April 9, 2014, http://www.swvatoday.com/news/smyth_county/article_2fe63cc8-bf6d-11e3-a31e-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked April 10, 2014)
13. "Frequently Asked Questions," CPV Smyth Energy Center, http://www.cpvsmyth.com/faqs.html; "CPV's plans for Atkins electric-generating plant still moving forward," SWVA Today, September 30, 2014, http://www.swvatoday.com/news/smyth_county/article_ad012c40-45d2-11e4-b6d0-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked September 30, 2014)
14. "The coal plant to end all coal plants?," Washington Post, May 16, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/intended-showcase-of-clean-coal-future-hits-snags/2014/05/16/fc03e326-cfd2-11e3-b812-0c92213941f4_story.html (last checked May 21, 2014)

fly ash disposal, piping waste from power plant to disposal ponds at Chesterfield
fly ash disposal, piping waste from power plant to disposal ponds at Chesterfield

since 1950, use of coal for directly heating houses has virtually disappeared in the United States - but use of electricity generated by coal increased
since 1950, use of coal for directly heating houses has virtually disappeared in the United States - but use of electricity generated by coal increased
Source: US Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2011, Type of Heating in Occupied Housing Units, 1950 and 2009 (Figure 2.7)


Coal in Virginia
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