Dominion is being slowly dragged into the energy transition, as is reflected by the company’s latest mid-term plan for its utility subsidiaries in Virginia and North Carolina.
The power giant is proud to announce that it is now planning at least 4.72 GW of solar in all of the alternatives in its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). However Dominion appears to be responding to both the threat of carbon regulation, as well as recently passed legislation in Virginia that declares that 5 GW of solar is in the public interest.
And like other American investor-owned utilities, as Dominion capitulates to the reality of renewable energy and limits on carbon emissions, it is also doing everything that it can to hold on to conventional generation. In this case the company is planning to build more gas plants and to keep its nuclear reactors online for longer than any have ever been operated.
All of this is underpinned by assumptions that electricity demand will grow. This is an area in which U.S. utilities and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration have shown a truly remarkable amount of denial in the face of flat to negative demand growth.
4.72 GW of solar by 2033
Dominion was able to offer specific near-term plans for solar. As spelled out in the IRP, Dominion plans to pursue contracts with 760 MW of solar projects owned by “non-utility generators” by 2020: 660 MW in North Carolina, and 100 MW in Virginia.
In addition to this, the company is currently developing two solar projects totaling 240 MW in Virginia, both of which it plans to put online by 2021. Dominion owns these projects.
Beyond this, the plans get less specific. All of the company’s different “alternative plans” in the IRP feature plans for 4.72 GW of solar by 2033, and as much as 6.4 GW.
This 4.72 GW figure is a 50% increase on the 3.2 GW of solar that the company had planned over this time period in its 2017 plans. However, since that time the Virginia legislature passed the Grid Transformation and Security Act, which declares that up to 5.5 GW of solar was “in the public interest”.
Along with this, a letter accompanying the IRP declares that Dominion has determined that despite the demise of the Clean Power Plan, some form of carbon regulation is inevitable over the mid- to long-term, either at the federal or state level. Dominion appears particularly concerned that Virginia will join Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
Ongoing reliance on gas, nukes
Plans for these new gas plants come as the United States saw an 8% decrease in electricity generation from natural gas in 2017, while renewable energy boomed and overall electric demand fell. It also comes as California is increasingly replacing not only new gas plants but even existing fossil fuel projects with less expensive clean energy alternatives.
All of the alternatives in Dominion’s 2018 IRP also assume 20-year license extensions for four nuclear reactors at the North Anna and Surry power plants. The company plans to run these plants into the second half of the 21st century. By this time these units would be 70-78 years old, and this is far longer than any nuclear power plant has been operated to date.
Like fellow Southern power company Duke Energy, Dominion appears to be firmly wedded to its existing nuclear power plants, and to think that it can run for unheard-of timelines. “Zero-carbon nuclear generation remains the backbone of the Dominion Energy Virginia fuel mix,” notes a company press release.
And while the company is also contemplating retirements of 2.8 GW of older coal, oil and gas-fired power by 2021 or 2022, it notes that the final decisions for such retirements have not been made.
All of this appears to be underpinned by assumptions that electricity demand will increase. Both U.S. utilities and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration routinely make this assumption, despite a decoupling of electricity demand from GDP in developed nations and flat-to-declining electricity demand in the United States overall.