Dominion’s Proposed Virginia Power Plant Casts Doubt on Its Commitments to Clean Energy

The company has proposed building a natural gas facility in Chesterfield, Virginia, despite laws mandating it reach zero-emissions by 2045.

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The Dominion Energy headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images
The Dominion Energy headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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In 2020, the Virginia Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a law that required the state’s largest utility provider, Dominion Energy, to generate all of its power using only renewable energy by 2045. 

But this summer, with a little over two decades to transition away from fossil fuels, the company revived previously shelved plans to build a large natural gas power plant in Chesterfield, Virginia, raising alarms with residents, environmental activists and climate scientists. 

In its permit filing for the project, Dominion noted that renewable energy sources like wind and solar reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but called them “operationally unreliable.” The utility said that fossil-fuel-powered plants are necessary to “respond rapidly to changes in generation from both the renewable sources and normal changes in power demand.”

Dominion has called the new Chesterfield plant a “peaker,” ostensibly meaning it would only operate during periods of high electrical demand. In its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan, which is awaiting approval by the State Corporation Commission (SCC), Dominion said it expects a large increase in energy demand driven by a concentration of data centers in Northern Virginia, America’s most important hub for internet traffic and infrastructure. 


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The company’s permit application shows the plant could run for over 3,000 hours a year—almost five months.

“I was already concerned about Dominion’s plans,” said Glen Besa, a Chesterfield resident and the retired director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “This just confirmed their down payment on climate chaos.”

Besa’s assessment of Dominion’s commitment to renewable energy was echoed by other environmentalists and Chesterfield residents who were frustrated by the company’s continued investment in fossil fuels, and its decision to site this plant in Chesterfield—a community that has lived in the shadow of a coal-powered Dominion plant for nearly three quarters of a century.

Some who follow the impacts of data centers on Virginia’s grid called the proposed emissions from this plan significant, and suggested that Dominion may be able to meet its energy needs by investing in more renewable infrastructure.  

Spokespeople from some of the largest tech companies in the world underscored their companies’ commitment to powering their data centers in Virginia with renewables, but did not offer concrete timelines for when this would happen.

Jeremy Slayton, Dominion’s spokesperson, said the Chesterfield plant, about 20 miles south of Richmond, “is all about reliability and keeping our customers’ lights on—especially on the hottest and coldest days of the year.”

Dominion is also “all in on renewables,” Slayton said. “We’re building the largest offshore wind project in North America; we have the second largest solar fleet in the nation, and we’re building battery storage in communities across Virginia.”

Slayton said that “more than 85 percent of the new power generation we’re building is zero-carbon—offshore wind, solar, battery storage and small modular reactors. But offshore wind only works 50 percent of the time, solar about 25 percent  and batteries only store electricity for 4-6 hours. That’s not going to keep the lights on 24/7, 365. We need a balanced energy mix, with renewables and always-ready natural gas working hand-in-hand.”

Not all Chesterfield residents feel Dominion has done their due diligence when it comes to community outreach. “I live near that area,” said Nicole Martin, head of Chesterfield’s NAACP chapter. “I’m deeply concerned, especially when we’re talking about the Black and brown community, the low-income community where the project is staged.”

Slayton responded that Dominion has engaged with the community by holding an open house in June, meeting with community-based organizations and residents in the surrounding area, and sending informational updates. 

An Increase In Emissions

Despite the term “peaker plant,” suggesting sparse use, Dominion’s Chesterfield plant would generate 1,000 megawatts of energy, enough to power over 250,000 homes, according to the company.

The maximum emissions from this facility, which Dominion has calculated to be 2 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent a year, would represent more than 10 percent of Dominion’s projected emissions by 2048. According to the company’s Integrated Resource Plan, released this May, Dominion expects to emit 36 million metric tons of CO2 in Virginia in 2048, more than double the roughly 17 million metric tons the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the company emitted in the state last year.

This jump would occur three years after Dominion is supposed to have completed its transition to renewables and generate no emissions. The company wrote in its plan that the Virginia Clean Economy Act “explicitly authorizes the Company to petition the SCC for relief from these requirements on the basis that the unit retirements would threaten the reliability or security of electric service to customers.”

As Dominion continues bringing new fossil fuel projects online in the face of its mandated renewables targets, said Besa, “they’re thumbing their nose at the state legislature, saying, ‘We don’t care, we’re going to deliver emissions.’” 

“There’s no question that the climate implications of a natural gas megawatt facility is something nobody wants,” said Andres Clarens, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Virginia. 

Clarens ran calculations using the EPA’s social cost of carbon, a dollar amount assigned to the long-term damage from one ton of CO2 emissions in a year; he found that emissions from this plant could cost society almost $250 million annually.

The EPA’s tool for calculating emissions equivalents shows that Dominion’s predicted maximum emissions from their proposed Chesterfield plant would amount to burning over 2 million pounds of coal a year.

Clarens called the rationale of such a large fossil-fuel-powered facility “disingenuous,” and said Dominion was misleading consumers about the reliability of renewables. As utilities across the country invest in large-scale batteries to help meet future demand,  Dominion’s continued reliance on fossil fuels represents an “old school framework” for dealing with energy peaks, Clarens said.

A more fiscally and environmentally responsible way Dominion could manage its demand during peak energy periods, according to Clarens, would be to invest in smart thermostats for its customers, who could then opt in to a program that would allow the utility to control their home’s energy settings during periods of high demand. 

Clarens, a Dominion customer, already participates in a program like this and says it’s saved him money. Expanding this program, especially to low-income households, Clarens said, could prevent Dominion from incurring the costs of having to operate another power plant to supply energy during peak demand. “All of a sudden, Dominion has the power to avoid some of those worst peaks,” he said.

The Data Center Capital of the World

One of Dominion’s biggest rationales for bringing new fossil fuel projects online is its projected increase in energy demand from data centers, vast facilities filled with servers, data storage drives and other network equipment. Dominion has projected peak data center demand to top 12,000 megawatts in 2038, more than a 300 percent increase from current levels.

“We are the data center capital of the world,” said Julie Bolthouse, the director of land use at Piedmont Environmental Council, a Virginia-based environmental nonprofit. She called Dominion’s plant in Chesterfield “a terrible project.”

Bolthouse said the timeframe Dominion has imposed on itself to meet new data center energy demand is “artificial,” underpinned by contracts it has already signed with the data center industry. 

As more companies elect to build data centers in the Commonwealth, Bolthouse would like to see a “comprehensive and independent study of what this data center demand means for the state of Virginia.” 

Until the results of such a study have been completed, Dominion “should be meeting the load demand consistent with Virginia’s Clean Economy Act and with Virginia’s conservation policies that we’ve set forward,” she said.

Several large tech companies with data centers in Virginia, including Amazon, Google, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Microsoft, have pledged to reduce or eliminate emissions associated with their data centers. 

Amazon did not respond to an inquiry about whether the company supports new fossil fuel infrastructure to help power its data centers. The company has publicly stated it plans to consume only renewable-generated electricity by 2025, two years before Dominion’s Chesterfield plant would come online, and reach net-zero emissions by 2040.

Google and Meta did not respond to separate inquiries about whether each company supports new fossil fuel infrastructure to help power the companies’ data centers. 

When asked whether Microsoft supports new fossil infrastructure to power its data centers, a spokesperson said “we can’t speak to Dominion Energy’s plans,” and noted that the company has previously pledged to eliminate its dependence on diesel fuel for backup power in its data centers by 2030. The company also has a goal to generate a 100 percent renewable energy supply equivalent to the electricity consumed by its data centers by 2025, but it is unclear if that energy would be used to power those data centers.

A spokesperson from the Data Center Coalition, which includes Amazon, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, said it was important that Dominion deliver “reliable, cost-effective power for all customers,” but said that many of the coalition’s members “have business goals for their operations to use 100 percent clean and renewable energy well before 2050.”

“They’re saying they’re going to make all these commitments,” Bolthouse said, “but there’s no numbers behind it.” In the absence of concrete data from tech companies on the amount of energy energy their data centers consume versus renewable energy they are able to source, Bolthouse said it is difficult to hold those companies accountable to their promises.

A Legacy of Pollution

In the latter half of the 20th century, Dominion built and expanded a coal-fired power plant in Chesterfield, which the company said it closed this May, replacing the coal units with oil and gas ones. The company says the plant currently generates about 400 megawatts. Dominion’s new Chesterfield plant would add an additional 1,000 megawatts of power to the grid, more than doubling the number of fossil fuel power plants in the community.

The Virginia General Assembly appeared to acknowledge the toll Dominion’s first plant has taken on Chesterfield when it passed a law in 2019 compelling the company to remove 15 million cubic yards of coal ash from two coal ash ponds attached to the original facility. The ponds are near a park and a conservation area. Dominion has 15 years to comply with this mandate. 

“You took down this old plant and now you want to build another natural gas plant that’s going to have natural gas emissions throughout the year. Why would we want to do that?” said Martin, head of Chesterfield’s NAACP chapter. “Replacing coal with natural gas is an oxymoron.”

Dominion’s history in the community and the effects of its coal infrastructure on its residents mean the utility should listen to the wishes of the community when it comes to another power plant, Martin said. So far, she’s found the company’s outreach efforts lacking, and recalled a Dominion spokesperson telling her that the company held a community-input meeting about the project, but that no residents showed up. 

Chesterfield residents “are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet,” Martin said. “We’re talking about a low-income, impoverished community—that’s not on the top of their priority list, you know?”

Martin would like to see Dominion shift to renewables as quickly as possible. “We’re supposed to be moving towards cleaner energy. So why don’t we start that process now?”

Besa also believed Dominion could do more to foster renewable infrastructure across the state. He acknowledged that the process wouldn’t likely be easy, but said Dominion still needed to “make some significant investments” in renewables. 

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a decision allowing Dominion’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, which the company says could deliver enough energy to power over half a million homes, to move forward.

But simply building this renewable infrastructure won’t be enough to undo the harm of adding more fossil fuel plants, Besa said. “While renewable energy doesn’t add greenhouse gasses, if you don’t take away what you’ve got, you’ve got a serious problem.”

Part of the reason Dominion feels like it can add new fossil fuel infrastructure when it’s supposed to be investing in renewables “goes to their relationship with the governor,” Besa continued, referring to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whom he characterized as “dismissive of all our climate laws.” 

Youngkin praised the utility’s Integrated Resource Plan, calling it a “commonsense approach” to meeting Vrignia’s projected energy demand and “delaying the retirement of critical baseload capacity,” which consists mainly of fossil fuels. 

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The Youngkin administration is also attempting to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cooperative agreement between 11 Eastern states that participate in a market mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If Youngkin succeeds, environmentalists in Virginia say he would be depriving the Commonwealth of one of its most impactful tools for arresting and combating the effects of climate change.

“Unfortunately, Dominion Energy has decided to cast its fate with Glenn Youngkin,” Besa said.

Youngkin’s office did not return a request for comment.

Despite Dominion’s plans, Martin expressed optimism about Chesterfield’s trajectory. “We’re a very diverse community. We’re a growing community,” she said, naming a number of infrastructure projects she expects will attract jobs and spending to the area in the near future. 

“It’s Dominion’s responsibility to get the consensus of the community when we’re talking about billions of dollars being put into a project such as this,” she said. “They haven’t done their due diligence.”

As part of its process for applying for an air quality control permit with the Department of Environmental Quality, Dominion will host a public information briefing on its Chesterfield plant in Chester, Virginia on November 16th. 

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