Journey to the Center of the Earth (or Wise County, VA)

I got back today from a 2-day trip to Wise County, located in the far southwestern corner of the Commonwealth. The trip was sponsored by Dominion Energy and was centered around a visit to the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a 580 megawatt coal-fired air-cooled power plant costing $1.8 billion. It is set to open in 2012.

Before I recount my journey to Wise and my impressions of Virginia City, it’s worth recounting that I always have been (and remain) a (1) proponent of a mandatory RPS standard in Virginia law, and (2) the de-coupling of power industry profits from the amount of kilowatts produced and delivered. That is my long-term vision for the energy sector and I’m open about it.

Having said that, the visit to Virginia City was eye-opening, especially in light of my experience on the Energy and Environment Commission since 2008. The site was a hive of activity with about 1,800 workers on-site building various structures, including the air cooled condenser, turbine housing and steam exhaust piping. The power generated will be enough to service approx 150,000 homes. It is a massive project with all the latest construction technology.

The controversial aspect of Virginia City is its use of coal — a material which emits carbons into the atmosphere when burned. While there are a full suite of emission controls in place at the new plant, it is true that burning coal causes air pollution beyond nuclear or even gas-fired plants (the plant also generates about 100 of its mw from burning recycled wood chips, ergo its designation as a “hybrid” plant”).

Having said that, the Virginia City plant also has some positive environmental aspects, namely its use of “waste coal” or refuse piles buried in the earth prior to the Seventies, when the filtered “coal fines” from early mines were discarded in local landfills. In Wise County alone, there are nearly 180 identified sites of waste coal which mar natural habitats and cause water pollution. This is an existing water quality problem for everyone.

As part of its charge, Virginia City reuses “waste coal” through a process which uncovers the deposits, removes and oxidizes the buried bits, and then restores the land (or streambed) to its natural shape. We visited one such reclaimed site in the town of Coeburn. This is a classic example of creating energy through environmental best practices and needs to be acknowledged.

Last night we took a tour at UVA-Wise, where we had dinner with college and community leaders. UVA-Wise is a little known jewel. It has great facilities and is attracting students from across the state. As proof of that, I introduced myself to one student and learned she was from San Diego (by way of Norfolk).

This morning, I woke up early to run around the football field at Burton High School in Norton (home of “the Raiders”), which is under the shadow of the mountains and next door to our Holiday Inn. It’s very dark and quiet in Norton at 6 a.m.

Then we took the bus to St. Paul to hear the Nature Conservancy speak on central Appalachia, an area our speakers described as “the center of the earth” because of the aged mountains, untouched by Ice Age glaciers, and the resulting biodiversity (the Clinch River alone has over 40 mussel varieties). We also had a presentation from student leaders at St. Paul’s High School who are seeking to reclaim a wetland and create a park in the middle of a former town landfill. It was outstanding.

We flew back today to Richmond and I drove home. All in all, it was an important trip. Energy continues to be the #1 economic development challenge regionally and nationally. In Virginia, we continue to struggle to develop native sources of energy, both renewable and non-renewable. Our utility companies must be part of the solution and we can learn from their professionals — even as we maintain oversight on their regulated monopoly. I’m glad I had a chance to learn from them.

Thanks to our friends at Wise County for their hospitality. We’ll be back soon.

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