Legal group challenges need for Dominion’s pipeline

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Greg Buppert, along with other attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law 
Center, questions the public necessity for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Amy Jackson Greg Buppert, along with other attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center, questions the public necessity for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Amy Jackson

local legal group will file a last-minute opinion that there isn’t enough market demand for a $6 billion pipeline. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will eventually approve or deny plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is accepting comments for its draft environmental impact statement until April 6.

“I think the bottom line here is that Dominion is rushing forward with a project that has real questions about its public necessity,” says Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Greg Buppert. “FERC is also not looking at the issue.”

Dominion Energy and Duke Energy are the major companies backing the pipeline.

“Once this pipeline is in the ground, ratepayers will be stuck with it,” says Buppert. “Landowners will have lost their property to Dominion, and, at that point, it’s going to be too late to say this project wasn’t really needed. The problem is no one is looking; no regulators are asking this question right now.”

Attorneys with the SELC used electricity forecasting models for the next 10 years from PJM Interconnection, the group that controls the electricity grid throughout the state, to assess the current and future need for more electricity.

“The data from PJM is striking because that’s not our analysis, it’s analysis from the grid manager who has a vested interest in making sure the grid is working and understanding what the demand for electricity is going to be,” Buppert says. “It estimates projections that are a lot less than Dominion’s.”

For instance, SELC attorney Will Cleveland compares Dominion and PJM’s projections for 2027. While the former has the summer peak demand estimated at 24,016 megawatts, the latter is estimating it at 20,501 megawatts—a difference of 3,515 megawatts.

“To put that into perspective, the massive natural gas power plant that Dominion is currently building [in Greensville County] is about 1,600 megawatts in size,” he says, so the gap between the two forecasts is a little more than two additional power plants. “So, if PJM’s load forecasts are more accurate, which we think they are, that’s two new power plants Virginia doesn’t need.”

The plant in Greensville will cost state ratepayers about $1.5 billion.

Dan Genest, a spokesperson with Dominion Virginia Power, which will be a customer of the ACP, says there are several reasons for the discrepancy between his company’s forecasts and PJM’s.

“In its forecasting model, PJM fails to take into account several factors that drive up demand that are unique to Virginia,” he says, including data centers, major electric appliance saturation—or exactly how many refrigerators, stoves, water heaters and other appliances are in Virginia homes and how much energy they use—and a large presence of federal, state and local government facilities such as military bases and offices.

Genest also points to PJM’s treatment of solar energy facilities, which have a negative impact and reduce its overall load forecast. Though those at Dominion say renewable energy is important, it is often undependable, and they can’t factor it into their projections, Genest says.

“So at nighttime or when it is cloudy, the customer still expects his lights will work even though his solar system is not [working],” Genest says. “Let’s say a customer uses 1,000 kilowatts of electricity per month and he generates about 100 kilowatts per month from rooftop solar. We still need to have enough electricity to cover that customer’s full needs when his solar is not operating.”

In February 2015, ICF International, an independent consulting service based in Fairfax, released a study showing the economic impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which projected a 165 percent increase in demand for natural gas between 2010 and 2035—in part because utilities are closing a number of coal-burning plants to make way for cleaner-burning natural gas.

Regional pipelines are already operating at full capacity, Dominion says, and though some expansions are planned, they are already fully subscribed in terms of customers.

But pipeline opponents still maintain there’s a better way to meet Virginia’s energy needs.

“For better or for worse, Dominion is doubling down on gas for the next 80 years,” says Buppert. With renewable energy systems gaining momentum and their prices continuing to drop, he says, “This is the wrong time to make a massive investment in gas.”

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