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Virginia Energy Policy: Electricity Production & the Coal Option

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that Virginia’s 2005 electricity production from coal was 44 percent, slightly less than the national average of 50 percent. The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER), created in 1977 and housed at Virginia Tech, maintains the Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends (VEPT) database. This authoritative reference source for data and information on energy production, distribution, transportation, consumption and use in Virginia indicates that 44 percent represents over 28,800,000 mega watt hours of annual net utility generation. The point is these are big numbers and to make changes in production and use will require a well thought out energy plan and a large capital outlay.



The U.S. is among the world’s major coal producing nations. In recent years, U.S. annual coal production has totaled over one billion tons. Virginia production totals have been in the 30 to 40 million ton range, coming largely from the southwestern coalfields of Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise Counties. Virginia coals tend to have high energy content and low sulfur content, making them ideal fuels for electricity generation. In 2005 Virginia produced 26,938,000 tons from 156 operating mines out of a total of 265 mines. Underground mines produced 16,510,000 tons and surface mines produced 10,427,000 tons. Virginia consumed 108,850,000,000 kWh in 2005.  That represents 3 percent of U.S. production and a state rank of 11. Virginia has increased its electricity use at an annual rate of 3.2 percent (1980-2005) as compared to the U.S. rate of 2.2 percent and a state rank of 9.



The state’s coal-powered generation capacity comes from 22 plants, half of which generate more than 100 MegaWatts (MW) each. Virginia also uses electrical capacity that is generated outside of the state. Two new coal-fired plants are currently in the pipeline. Dominion Resources has proposed a 585 megawatt (MW) circulating fluidized-bed boiler coal-fired power plant in Wise County. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative has proposed the Cypress Creek Power Station, a 1500 MW supercritical pulverized coal/biomass power plant in Surry County.



What is the reason for using coal? Coal and nuclear are the only two cost effective and reliable sources for base-load electricity production. A base-load facility produces electricity at a constant rate to meet most of a region’s energy demands, usually at a lower cost relative to other production facilities. Coal and nuclear are supplemented by other fuels for peaking energy needs.  A peaking facility produces electricity only when there is a high demand. Peaking facilities operate anywhere from a few hours per year to several hours per day depending on power demand in the region’s electrical grid. Many peaking facilities utilize turbines that burn natural gas or oil. Peaking facilities cost more to operate on a cost-per-MW basis, but ensure there is enough electricity to meet customer needs during peak summer and winter periods.



Without question, coal is an important resource to Virginia. In 2005 15,061,000 short tons (short ton is a unit of weight equal to 2,000 pounds) of coal were shipped to Virginia utilities. Of this 5,153,000 tons came from Virginia, 6,592,000 from Kentucky and 1,914,000 from West Virginia (note that a dramatic increase in Virginia coal use in 2007 to 9,201,000 and a reduction from Kentucky to 2,609,000 changes the dynamics of production, transportation and cost). It represents the best base-load electricity production expansion capability available in the next ten to twenty years. The only exception is the North Anna III plant that may be operable in that time frame. Virginia must plan to replace or upgrade older coal-fired facilities and take steps to ensure adequate base-load capacity to meet the growing needs of Virginia’s residential, commercial and industrial clients. Conservation and efficiency are only a partial answer to Virginias electricity needs. New production, upgrades and replacement of coal-fired facilities are essential to ensure Virginia’s energy future.

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