Following the passage of bills in the Virginia General Assembly this year, Dominion Energy is searching for sites in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia where it can build a pumped hydroelectric storage facility.
In December 2016, Virginia Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon, and Dels. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, and Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, traveled to rural Bath County, about two hours from Roanoke, to visit Dominion’s pumped hydroelectric storage facility. It began operating in 1985.
The Bath County site, which can generate power for 750,000 homes, is the largest pumped hydroelectric storage facility in the world, Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said. It’s a traditional facility consisting of two reservoirs, one at a higher elevation and the other at a lower elevation. The two reservoirs are connected by huge pipes.
A turbine and generator are situated between the two reservoirs, Genest said. As the water flows down from the upper reservoir, it hits the turbine. It spins the generator and produces electricity, he explained.
The water then flows into the lower reservoir. At night, when the demand for electricity is not too high, Genest said the turbine becomes a pump. The water is then pumped back up from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir, he said.
“You pump the water back up, essentially filling up the upper reservoir so it has energy for the next time you need it,” Genest said.
He described pumped hydroelectric storage facilities as large batteries that store energy in the form of water. Such sites, he said, generate power at peak use times.
As a result of the trip to Bath County, the legislators wrote House and Senate bills, which were eventually signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
As the coal industry has waned, Chafin said he and other lawmakers have been looking for ways to bring more jobs and money to the region. The bills specify that utilities consider sites in the coalfields.
The bills authorize electric utilities, such as Dominion or Appalachian Power, to apply to the Virginia State Corporation Commission for permission to construct pumped hydroelectric storage facilities in Virginia’s coalfield region. At least part of the energy stored in such facilities must be generated by renewable resources, the bills state.
“It was in the public’s interest,” Chafin said. “And this bill fast-tracks these types of sites.”
Kilgore, who sponsored the House bill, said he’s thrilled Dominion is moving forward with plans for a pumped hydroelectric storage facility.
“I sponsored this legislation this year because it is imperative that we seek every opportunity to grow our economy and create jobs in our region, which has experienced significant challenges over the last several years with the downturn of the coal industry,” Kilgore said. “These power plants could help Southwest Virginia remain the energy provider of Virginia.”
The legislation encourages companies to establish sites in an abandoned coal mine cavity.
“We have started doing preliminary research,” said Genest, describing the use of computers, maps and satellite imagery to find potential sites.
Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy currently has identified dozens of possible sites in the coalfields, Genest said. In the next couple of months, the company plans to narrow the list to five to 20 sites.
When the top sites are chosen, Dominion will host public meetings in the coalfields to let residents know what the company is doing and make contact with landowners who might be near potential sites, Genest said.
During the first quarter of 2018, Genest said Dominion plans to select one site to go forward with the project.
Potential sites depend on altitude changes, water supplies and ground strength, he added.
Dominion already has a presence in Southwest Virginia. The company owns the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul, which powers about 150,000 homes. The center uses coal and biomass.
A pumped hydroelectric storage facility utilizing a mine in Southwest Virginia, which Genest said could create about 50 jobs, would be the first in the United States. Dominion’s $1.6 billion site in Bath County doesn’t use a mine. Elsewhere, one project is currently being established at a mine in Germany, where the site is expected to power more than 400,000 homes, according to Bloomberg News.
Genest said it’s too early to determine the cost of a site in Southwest Virginia, or how much power one could generate in the coalfields.
Appalachian Power, which provides electricity to many customers in Southwest Virginia, has also shown interest in pumped hydroelectric storage power.
“We started off to develop the study group to look at the coalfields,” said Appalachian Power spokesman John Shepelwich. “Dominion got a bit ahead of us and they got a lot of work done, apparently. And they’ve moved on to a second phase.”
Shepelwich added that Appalachian Power is open to potential opportunities, but does not currently have pumped hydroelectric storage facilities on the drawing board.
“We’re adding renewable energy projects like solar and wind,” Shepelwich said. “Our idea is to get more of those which could be added in relatively small increments, rather than these huge power plants.”
Appalachian Power currently has a request for proposals for solar projects in its service territory, which includes the coalfields, Shepelwich said.
Appalachian operates a pumped hydroelectric storage facility using Smith Mountain Lake, the upper reservoir, and Leesville Lake, the lower reservoir.
Both Appalachian Power’s Smith Mountain Lake and Dominion’s Bath County site feature recreation opportunities, such as fishing, swimming and boating. It’s not known whether a Southwest Virginia site would offer recreation amenities.
In mid-June, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, said he filed federal legislation similar to the state bills.
“It is similar to the state legislation in that it helps anybody who wants to build a closed-loop hydro facility, but it is not something that we drafted specifically with any proposal from any particular company in mind,” Griffith said. “It just makes good sense.”
The congressman’s bill would allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “impose licensing conditions only as necessary to protect public safety; or that are reasonable, economically feasible, and essential to protect fish and wildlife resources.”
Griffith said environmental impact statements would not be necessary with a closed-loop system, because no animals or plants would be affected.
“With the closed-loop situation, you’re bringing the water in,” Griffith said. “It’s H20, there’s nothing else in it. In a mine situation, you already have your infrastructure built, all you have to do is put your pump and your generator in. … It’s an attractive concept.”
Many of the recently proposed pumped storage projects can be classified as using a closed-loop system, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s website. The agency describes closed-loop as projects that are not continuously connected to a naturally flowing water feature.
“I appreciate Congressman Griffith's work to promote closed-loop pumped storage hydropower,” Del. Pillion said in a statement. “This builds upon critical legislation passed by the Virginia legislature earlier this year allowing for the development of pumped hydro storage facilities in the coalfields. Our commitment to an above and below energy approach will allow us to utilize the energy resources available to provide cheap and reliable energy for our families and create jobs.”
Chafin described Griffith as a great partner to work with for the betterment of Southwest Virginia.
“His legislation, similar to legislation we passed on the state level, will help fast-track the process for hydro pump storage,” Chafin said. “These facilities will create jobs and help our localities financially.”
Dominion will submit preliminary permit applications to FERC for the initial sites that are under consideration, the company said in a statement. The pre-application doesn’t commit Dominion to the project. If the company determines one or more facilities make sense, Dominion said it will then submit a license application to FERC for review.