After World War II, Virginia's utility companies met the increased demand for electricity by constructing power plants fueled 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.
That pattern has changed, driven by both pollution control measures and economics. Utilities have begun closing old coal-fired power plants, or altering them to use other fuel sources.
In 2003, Dominion converted its two remaining coal-fired boilers, units #3 and #4 at the Possum Point plant (in Prince William County), 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, smoothing the approval by Virginia Department of Environmental Qality of a new Unit #6 producing 559MW from gas or oil. (Other measures were required to reduce emissions from mobile sources, such as altering the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel used by trucks and construction equipment.)1
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.2
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.3
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.4
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.5
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):6
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.
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:7
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.
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.8
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.9
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.10
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.11
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.12
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.
1. "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)
fly ash disposal, piping waste from power plant to disposal ponds at Chesterfield