BLUEFIELD — In what could be a game-changer for southwest Virginia, Dominion Energy is planning to invest more than a billion dollars in the construction of a pumped hydroelectric storage station for the coalfield region.

The company is currently looking at a number of sites in the coalfield counties for the project, which would create hundreds of jobs during the multi-year construction phase, and approximately 50 permanent positions. The hydroelectric storage power station will cost more than $1.8 billion to build, and would provide millions of dollars in new tax revenue for the locality that is ultimately selected for the development.

“We are evaluating various sites right now,” Greg Edwards, an external affairs representative for Dominion Energy, told members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board last week. “They have looked at various sites using maps and satellite imagery. We are going to narrow that down to a few sites.”

Edwards said a pumped hydroelectric storage facility can best be described as a battery.

“It is a way to store electricity until you need it,” Edwards said. “It is a pleasing facility. The facility would just run in times of peak demand when it is the coldest days or hottest days. You would have the electricity there to sell when it is needed.”

Legislation passed during the recently concluded session of the Virginia General Assembly authorized electric utilities such as Dominion to apply to the Virginia State Corporation Commission for permission to construct pump hydroelectric storage facilities in the coalfield region of southwest Virginia. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, and Delegate Todd Pillion, R-Washington.

Edwards said the pump station will be comparable in scope and cost to the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County. That project cost $1.8 billion to construct, and generates about $6 million a year in annual property tax payments to Wise County and St. Paul, and $25 million annually for the local economy.

“We paid $1.8 billion for Virginia City,” Edwards said. “We expect this project to cost more than that. So, it is a significant investment.”

So what is a hydroelectric storage pump station, and how does it work?

According to Dominion, pump hydroelectric storage facilities act as large batteries that store energy in the form of water. During off-peak energy hours, when demand is lower, less expensive energy is used to pump water from a reservoir at a lower altitude up to a reservoir at a higher altitude. The water is stored in the upper reservoir until an on-peak period, or period of high demand. At that point the water is allowed to flow downhill to a power generation facility where it spins turbines. The turbines activate generators that produce electric power that is then delivered to the electric grid. The company says pumped hydroelectric storage is the only form of large-scale energy storage commercially available at the present time.

Dominion Energy currently operates an existing pump hydroelectric storage station in Bath County, Va. That facility has the ability to provide electricity to 750,000 homes.

The company has not yet decided which county the southwest Virginia project will be developed in. The coalfield region of southwest Virginia contains several counties, including Tazewell and Buchanan.

“We are expecting in just a few months to have the site selection process narrowed down to just a handful of sites,” Edwards said. “When we get to that point, we will notify any affected landowners or adjacent landowners. We will plan a series of meetings, probably four of them, around the coalfields where folks will be able to ask questions.”

Edwards said Dominion Energy is in the beginning stages of the project. Counting planning, permitting and construction, the project could take upward of seven years to complete.

“This is kind of the start of the process,” he said. “We want to make sure we are keeping everyone who is affected in the public informed about our plans and what they are.”

Edwards said the mountainous geography of southwest Virginia lends itself well to a project like a hydro pump station.

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., introduced legislation on the federal level last week to help promote the development of closed-loop pumped storage hydropower in Virginia’s coalfield counties.

“Our state legislators have worked hard to facilitate the deployment of this technology in the coalfields, and my bill provides the support necessary to complement their work from the federal level,” Griffith said last week. “It could be a real benefit to our coalfield region, in the form of jobs, economic development, and energy security.”

Dominion Energy is one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy, with a portfolio of approximately 26,200 megawatts of generation, 15,000 miles of natural gas transmission, gathering and storage pipeline, and 6,600 miles of electric transmission lines.

— Charles Owens writes for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Email: cowens@bdtonline.com

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