Dominion Energy representatives

Representatives from Dominion Energy explain details about the $2 billion hydroelectric pump storage project during a public meeting at Bland County High School in June 2019.

BLUEFIELD — As Dominion Energy continues to evaluate whether a $2 billion renewable energy project will come to Tazewell County, the company is also partnering with Appalachian Power (AEP) and InvestSWWA to advance energy storage technology in Southwest Virginia.

Dominion and AEP announced the partnership last week, and it also includes also the Appalachian School of Law, Mountain Empire Community College and the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority.

“As a leader in renewable energy, we are excited by the opportunity and potential this presents to further diversify our energy mix,” said Chris Beam, Appalachian Power President and Chief Operating Officer. “Last year, Appalachian produced approximately 2,400 gigawatt-hours of energy from wind- and hydro-power and as our investment in renewables grows, so will our need for energy storage.”

“With the greater proliferation of renewables, energy storage expansion will be a vital component in providing stability to our grid and support our customer’s needs,” Ed Baine, President of Dominion Energy Virginia, said in the announcement. “Dominion Energy looks forward to working with our partners to support economic development in Southwest Virginia, which has long served as Virginia’s energy corridor.”

Both Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy’s efforts in energy storage are bolstered by the Virginia General Assembly’s Grid Transformation & Security Act of 2018 and the Virginia Clean Energy Act of 2020. In addition, both companies are focused on how energy storage can maximize the impact of solar energy generation.

Dominion said its solar fleet is currently the third-largest among utility holding companies in the nation and will build the largest offshore wind project in North America off the coast of Virginia Beach.

The company is also looking for new and innovative ways to store the renewable energy it produces to maintain reliable service to customers, including the coming construction of four Central Virginia energy storage projects recently approved by the State Corporation Commission. 

The Tazewell County project, a pumped storage facility, if eventually given the green light, will be built on the south side of East River Mountain just a few miles west of Bluefield and would compliment the Bath County Pumped Storage Station described as the “largest battery in the world.”

Two reservoirs are used, on at the top of the mountain and one at the bottom, to generate electricity on demand by releasing water down tunnels to provide the power to rotate turbines in a powerhouse at the lower reservoir. Water is then pumped back to the upper reservoir.

Dominion has been evaluating the project for over two years to see if it is feasible. If given the green light, it would provide 2,000 construction jobs and take a total of about 10 years to be up and running.

Appalachian said in the announcement it has in recent years expanded its portfolio to include more renewables, and will use its expertise to research ways energy storage can improve electric reliability for customers and attract new business and industry to this region.

Under the Clean Energy Act, Appalachian Power is committed to providing customers with at least 600 megawatts of solar generation in Virginia by 2030. The company has signed contracts for 55 megawatts of solar, and earlier this year issued a request for proposals (RFP) for up to 200 megawatts of solar energy resources to include solar and an option for a battery storage system. Appalachian Power is currently in negotiations with developers on the proposals received through the RFP process.

Dominion Energy Virginia’s most recent long-term forecast calls for approximately 16,000 megawatts of solar in the state over the next 15 years to meet customers’ energy needs.

Coalfield Strategies, LLC, a one-stop economic development firm driving new business investment to Southwest Virginia, will coordinate on-the-ground efforts with both utilities. The firm leads InvestSWVA, a public-private business attraction and marketing campaign launched under the umbrella of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, in addition to project development efforts for the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority.

According to the announcement, Coalfield Strategies will use recently completed market research and key site data collected from its portfolio of energy projects to define why the region is attractive to the energy storage industry.

“Virginia’s utilities are best positioned to drive the development and deployment of energy storage technology,” said Will Payne, Managing Partner of Coalfield Strategies and InvestSWVA lead. “Our team is excited to work with Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy in attracting industry prospects to Southwest Virginia, and we have assembled partners that demonstrate the region’s desire to redefine itself as the energy innovation capital of the East Coast.”

Coalfield Strategies will continue to collaborate with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, given the agency’s expertise in the region’s assets, including land, power and water. The firm will also tap two key statewide authorities in order to leverage industry relationships and expertise, including the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority and the Virginia Solar Energy Development and Energy Storage Authority.

“Southwest Virginia is poised to drive energy storage technology development, and we are looking forward to working hand-in-hand with Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy to bring the region together around this opportunity,” said Mike Quillen, Chair of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority. “Our team is going to think creatively and strategically on how to pair renewable energy generation with job-creating projects.”

The announcement said energy projects to help establish the region’s credibility in attracting renewable, clean and zero-carbon projects include:

• Project Innovation is developing the Southwest Virginia Energy Research Park, a first-of-its-kind operation in the United States that will host companies and entrepreneurs interested in proving and eventually commercializing their technology.

• Project Energizer explores using pumped-storage hydro technology on a small, affordable scale and provides an opportunity for Southwest Virginia to leverage its topography as a competitive advantage.

• Project Oasis highlights Southwest Virginia’s foothold in out-of-the-box thinking with the use of geothermal cooling technology with the billions of gallons of water collected in underground mines as a significant energy and cost-savings tool, not only for data centers but also for any industrial operation requiring robust power and water.

These projects benefit largely from the region’s considerable inventory of reclaimed surface mined properties plus adjacent underground mines. Congressman Morgan Griffith (R–VA9), a member of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, has led efforts to secure over $30 million in funding from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program to support land reclamation and economic development activities throughout the region. This funding will continue to play a strategic role in marketing Southwest Virginia as a leader in the new energy economy.

“Energy has been central to Southwest Virginia’s past, and this announcement shows how important it will be to Southwest Virginia’s future as well,” said Griffith. “Energy storage technology can make use of our existing assets to create jobs and power industries in the region.”

The Appalachian School of Law will lend its extensive educational and legal expertise in energy storage incentives around the country, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s new energy storage rule, and how energy storage is credited in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative market Virginia appears poised to enter.

This partnership aligns with the goals of InvestSWVA’s legislative co-chairs when they created the Southwest Virginia Research and Development Authority during the 2019 General Assembly session.

“Southwest Virginia is a prime location for energy research and development activities that leverage our region’s talent and natural resources,” said state Sen. Ben Chafin. “Our legislative delegation is committed to seeing the region build on its long history of energy generation in order to grow our economy.”

“Partnering with Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy allows the region to connect research and economic development in order to drive energy innovation in Southwest Virginia,” said Delegate Terry Kilgore. “We should take an all-the-above approach to keep Southwest Virginia in a lead position.”

“Our region offers the energy storage industry a strategic location to not only research and prove technology but also manufacture it,” said Delegate Israel O’Quinn. “Southwest Virginia has the assets, workforce and incentives that are critical to attracting innovators and entrepreneurs.”

“The value of this partnership is a coordinated effort between Virginia’s largest utilities and the various economic development, workforce and policy leaders across the region,” said Senator Todd Pillion. “We are committed to leveraging our relationships in order to aggressively pursue energy storage technology development and manufacturing opportunities in Southwest Virginia.”

An attempt is also under way to take advantage of solar energy for public schools, asking Appalachian Power to allow fair access to solar energy in the company’s Southwest Virginia territory, an announcement from Appalachian Voices said last week.

The Wise County and Tazewell County school boards voted unanimously last week to pass resolutions calling for fair financial mechanisms that would enable them to install solar at their schools, which would ultimately save the school systems thousands of dollars.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had several citizens reach out to us and ask us to support a resolution in support of equal access to solar,” said Dr. Christopher Stacy, Tazewell County Public Schools Superintendent. 

The announcement on the request also said the Town of Blacksburg, Carroll County Public School Board, Carroll County, and Pulaski County officials have sent letters also calling for equal access to solar.

Schools across the region have pursued solar projects in recent years,

However, the announcement said, Appalachian Power currently limits net metering for local government, effectively blocking power purchase agreement (PPA) financing for these same customers.

Net metering allows a customer to send electricity from their solar panels onto the grid, offsetting their electric bill, the announcement said.  Under a PPA, a third-party developer owns, operates and maintains a solar system on behalf of a customer. These programs are crucial tools for financing solar and reducing the up-front cost of a new installation, which can be a barrier for customers, particularly tax-exempt and public entities.

The resolutions and letters come as a steering committee of the Appalachian Power Virginia Municipal League and Virginia Association of Counties begins negotiations with APCo to update the rates and services provided to local government or “public authority” entities in Southwest Virginia. Contract negotiations are expected to continue over the next few months. 

“Schools and local governments in other parts of the state are taking advantage of solar energy to save taxpayer money. These tools can be of significant value to Southwest Virginia, which has powered our state and country for more than 100 years and is now struggling as we undergo an energy transition,” said Austin Counts, New Economy Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, which helped inform the school and government entities about the issue. 

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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