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Dominion proposes huge expansion of solar plants

Politicians may dither and lobbyists clash over carbon emissions and climate, but Dominion Virginia Power says its customers and a sharp drop in the price of solar panels are sending a clear signal — and the result is a dramatic increase in its plans to build solar power plants.

Dominion’s latest long-term plan, filed Monday with the State Corporation Commission, calls for an eightfold increase in its solar plants over the next 15 years. It would be a huge shift for a power company frequently criticized by environmentalists in recent years for dragging its heels on renewable energy and conservation.

But Dominion’s plan also calls for more natural gas plants and depends on completion of a controversial pipeline running through the state from West Virginia to North Carolina, with a spur to South Hampton Roads, as well as a license renewal for its Surry and North Anna nuclear power plants to keep them in operation past 2052. Environmental groups have said they dislike both ideas.

“The combination of solar, natural gas and nuclear looks to be the sweet spot in terms of cost, reliability and environment,” Paul Koonce, the top executive at Dominion’s electric-generating operation.

He said the shift toward building more solar plants makes better economic sense now, thanks to a roughly 50 percent drop in the cost of solar panels in recent years. That drop is due in part to tax credits and other subsidies intended to encourage renewable energy.

Virginians have also been pushing for more renewable energy, Dominion Virginia Power chief executive officer Robert M. Blue said.

But Dominion’s plan assumes faster growth in demand for electricity power than does PJM Interconnection, the operator of the 13-state North Carolina-to-Illinois power grid Virginia is plugged into, said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center who follows energy issues for the nonprofit group. Dominion’s forecast says Virginia’s electricity use will be about 1,000 megawatts higher than the PJM predicts, the company’s filing with the SCC shows.

“I’m still trying to digest, but the first question is, do we really need more power plants? … If there’s no need for more natural gas plants, there’s no need for the pipeline,” Cleveland said. “And Dominion’s already been building natural gas plants like crazy.”

Still, he added, it is commendable that Dominion’s new plan recognizes the changing economy of solar power.

“Dominion’s actions don’t match its words when it comes to promoting renewable energy,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

“Despite the fanfare, this does not appear to be a sharp change from what we have seen in the past,” she said. In a statement, the Sierra Club said the increase in solar power pales in comparison to Dominion’s in natural gas since 2010 and its plans for more gas generation in the future.Read full article at Daily Press