‘A huge step forward’: Tazewell County only site in consideration for Dominion Energy hydroelectric pump

TAZEWELL, Va. — With Tazewell County now the only site being considered for a $2 billion Dominion Energy hydroelectric pump storage facility, the economic landscape of the area may be on the verge of a game-changing decision.

With more than 2,000 construction jobs on the line and millions in annual tax revenue for Southwest Virginia, the impact would be enormous if Dominion finds the site suitable for the massive project.

Jeremy Slayton, communications specialist with Dominion, and Spencer Adkins, director of generation projects, were in Bluefield Tuesday morning to announce that the other site which was under consideration in Wise County has been eliminated for this project.

Slayton said the Wise County site, which would have used the abandoned Bullitt Mine, “is not suitable” for a large-scale project that Dominion is considering due to the water in that mine.

The decision has cleared the way for the Tazewell County site, if everything falls into place from a geotechnical/environmental standpoint.

“We are going to perform more extensive surveys of the location in Tazewell on the East River mountain site,” Slayton said.

That site is on the south side of East River Mountain just west of Bluefield and has already seen some geotechnical surveys and environmental studies, but now more will be needed.

A pump storage facility is akin to a “giant battery,” with two large reservoirs, one near the top of East River Mountain and one near the bottom. Both reservoirs will be filled with water and power is generated when water is released from the upper reservoir to the lower one, cascading through tunnels more than 1,000 down the mountain, providing the power to rotate turbines.

Power would be provided to Dominion on demand since it can be generated “within minutes” at the facility, Adkins said, and then transmitted to any location on Dominion’s electric grid.

Adkins said that with the focus now only on Tazewell County, more work is needed to make “absolutely” sure the site is suitable for the project.

Those studies, he said, will most likely go into 2020 before a final decision can be made.

“Based on our research thus far, we are encouraged about the potential for the Tazewell site to support a pumped storage facility,” said Dominion Energy’s Mark Mitchell, vice president generation construction.

One of the new issues to address for the Tazewell County site is a potential water source because the original plan looked at an abandoned mine at Amonate for water.

However, that plan was scrapped after it could not be determined if enough water was available in the mine.

Now, they are looking at Wolf Creek for the approximate 6.5 billion gallons of water needed.

“It’s not a slam dunk yet,” Adkins said of locating in Tazewell County, adding that it’s a matter of performing all the necessary due diligence.

Public meetings on the project are set for next month to answer any questions.

The first meeting will be held on July 16 at Graham High School from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Another meeting is scheduled for July 18 at Bland High School from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

If the project is given the green light, it will bring more than 2,000 jobs during the construction phase, which lasts five to seven years, and about 50 permanent jobs after completion.

The project would take about 10 years to complete and bring a huge economic boost to the area.

According to a report released by the Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics, the proposed power station would bring about $320 million annually in economic benefits to the region during construction, $37 million a year after completion as well as about $12 million a year in tax revenue for local governments.

When the project first surfaced, seven localities agreed to a revenue-sharing plan, with the county where the plant would be located receiving the most money.

That agreement, which was worked out with coalfield counties and the City of Norton, gives the county where the facility will be constructed the lion’s share of the revenue, or 22 percent of the estimated $12 million annually.

That would mean more than $2.5 million a year for Tazewell County.

“It would certainly be a wonderful, wonderful thing for Tazewell County,” said Eastern District Supervisor Charlie Stacy. “We’re excited and it’s one of those things where you tell people to be cautiously optimistic.”

Stacy said that since the other site has been eliminated Dominion can put all their resources into Tazewell County.

But Adkins said all of the studies need to be completed before that final decision is made and work will start in about two months on more core drillings, which will require a permit from Tazewell County.

Eight were done last summer to determine if the land that will be underneath the reservoirs is suitable.

Adkins said the preliminary results are back and those are positive.

Drilling now will be focused on the tunnels and powerhouse.

For example, the tunnels may have to be lined with concrete or other materials, he said, depending on what the drillings may find.

More drillings will also determine if the earth can handle a powerhouse at the lower reservoir, which will be underground.

“We want to make sure we have no issues,” he said. “We need more data in order to do that.”

Adkins said the extra drilling is not because of any federal or state regulations that still need to be met, but for the company’s assurance it can do what it plans to do.

The other issue that will be addressed is the water source.

With Wolf Creek now a potential water source, impact studies will also be completed to make sure the gradual taking of water from the creek poses no problems. The source site is in Bland County near Rocky Gap,

Gauges are already collecting data on water flow, he said, and once the process starts it would take about two years to fill up the reservoirs.

Once that is done, however, no more water would be needed other than to replenish some due to evaporation or other minor losses.

Dominion owns 2,600 acres of land in the Nye Valley Road area where the facility would be located, with the possibility of acquiring more if needed.

Work started on the site right after September 2017, when the project was first announced.

Adkins said roads were built on the property as well as bridges so the equipment needed for the studies could have access, including large drilling machines.

The scope of the project helps explain why so much preliminary work must be done to make sure all is in place geographically to handle it.

A 200-ft. high earthen-based dam is needed for the 2,000-ft. long lower reservoir with water covering 235 acres.

The powerhouse, which will hold four large turbines, will be at the lower reservoir and the structure is 450 feet long, 150 feet high and 100 feet wide. Each turbine will produce more than 200,000 kilowatts for a total of 850,000 kilowatts, enough to power about 250,000 homes.

At the top of the mountain, about 1,000 feet away, would be the upper reservoir at an elevation of over 3,000 feet. That dam will be 175 feet high and the water will cover 229 acres.

During a tour of the site last summer, Dominion engineer Chris Nunn said because of the contour of the land at the top, which is a gradual slope rather than a sharp dropoff, the dirt/rock that needs to be excavated will be used for the base of the dam so none will have to be hauled in.

A 1,200-foot-long tunnel will run from the upper to the lower reservoir.

The diameter of that tunnel will be 27 feet and it’s called a “headrace” tunnel. But before it reaches the lower reservoir it will split off into four tunnels, called “penstock” tunnels, each with a 15 foot diameter. Those four send water through the entrance to the powerhouse and power each of the four turbine motors to generate electricity.

“The water is then pumped back up to the upper reservoir,” Nunn said. “Once the reservoirs are filled, no more water will be needed (in large quantities.”

A KV 765 power line runs across East River Mountain and through part of the area where the facility would be, Adkins said, providing convenient access for transmission.

Not only are more intensive studies required, but federal hoops must be cleared as well, including the process of receiving eventual approval from FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), Adkins said.

That process takes two to four years, which helps explain the 10-year time frame needed for the facility to be constructed and become operational.

Adkins said an application for preliminary work was filed with FERC in September 2017 and another one will be filed later this year.

“We have been in close contact with Dominion as their due diligence process proceeds,” said Tazewell County Administrator Eric Young. “The hydro pumped storage project would be a transformative event for our economy with countless opportunities for our residents and residents throughout our region.”

Young said the county understands “there are many geological tests, soil tests, environmental impact analyses, and feasibility studies yet to be performed. Tazewell County will continue to work with Dominion as they proceed with this phase of their work.”

“The announcement by Dominion is exciting news,” said Mike Hymes, Southern District supervisor. “We continue to be optimistic about this project locating here and the great economic benefit the project will bring to the area. I understand Dominion will continue to assess the area in Tazewell County to make sure their investments will pay off with a completed project. Our board continues to work diligently with the Dominion officials to make sure any of their ongoing needs are met.”

State Sen. Ben Chafin (R-38th), Del. Terry Kilgore (R-1st), and Del. Todd Pillion (R-4th) released a statement on the potential impact of pumped storage in Southwest Virginia.

“We appreciate the work that Dominion Energy is continuing to invest in studying the feasibility of a pumped storage project in Southwest Virginia,” they said. “Throughout this process, our top priorities have been and continue to be job creation, economic opportunity, and investments in our communities. We are committed to keeping Southwest Virginia the energy capital of the Commonwealth.

“To complement efforts on pumped storage, we passed legislation this year creating the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority. The Authority will promote opportunities for energy development in Southwest Virginia, to create jobs and economic activity, and to position our region as a leader in energy workforce and energy technology research and development.”

The site for the facility will be located in this region because of legislation passed several years ago that allows the company to recoup construction expenses if it provides jobs in a depressed area.

Dominion has a pump storage facility in Bath County, the largest of its kind in the world.

That facility can produce about three times the amount of electricity the proposed Tazewell County plant can generate.

Adkins said that as part of the requirement in the legislation, a renewable energy project must also be be included at some point.

Concern had been expressed by area residents of a possible wind turbine effort on top of East River Mountain to accompany the proposed facility project. That was also related to a previous inquiry by Dominion to look into the possibility about 10 years ago, but the proposal never advanced.

Adkins said the renewable energy aspect of the project has not been determined and is not on the immediate horizon.

He also said it can be wind or solar and can be located anywhere on the Dominion grid, not just in Southwest Virginia.

Adkins also said that the hydroelectric pump storage facility provides “clean” energy because it does not rely on fossil fuels and does not pollute.

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