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Virginia utility to convert three coal plants to biomass

Dominion Virginia Power seeks to convert three coal-powered power stations in the state to use renewable biomass instead.

Dominion Virginia Power on Monday asked the Virginia state commission for approval to convert three coal-powered power stations in the state to use renewable biomass instead.

The three plants -- Altavista (pictured at right), Hopewell and Southampton County -- would collectively increase the company's renewable generation capacity by more than 150 megawatts, helping it stay on track to make 15 percent of its 28,200-megawatt-strong power portfolio renewable by 2025.

The biomass energy source for the plants would primarily be waste wood left over from regional timber operations. The company says the switch would reduce emissions of various chemicals, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury.

The conversions would be complete by the end of 2013.

The interest isn't just environmental for Dominion. The stations would save $120 million each year compared to coal operations, it says, as well as turn the peak power plants into more regularly operational facilities -- 90 percent uptime, versus the 25 percent today.

Dominion estimates the conversion will cost $165 million ($55 million for each 51-megawatt station); to do so, the company is raising its rates -- 14 cents on a monthly bill for a 1,000 kilowatt-hour per month residential customer. If approved, the rates take effect on April 1, 2012.

The business benefits remain clear for the utility from both an economic and regulatory perspective, but it remains to be seen how this will go over with consumers, who bear a cost increase without a guaranteed benefit. (Will rates come down once the more efficient plants are built and paid for? I doubt it.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com