the proposed 500kV powerline would cross the James River seven miles downstream from the 1607 fort
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Powerline route from US Army Corps of Engineers Application NAO-2012-00080, Project Location Map
The scenic vista from Jamestown, looking over the James River, is part of the historic landscape. In 2007, the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement at Jamestown, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that:1
The challenge of "protecting and restoring the James River" became clear just five years later. In 2012, the largest utility in Virginia proposed to alter the landscape with a major new powerline across the river. It would not be visible from the site of the 1607 fort, but would be within the viewshed of Jamestown Island, the Colonial Parkway, and Carter's Grove Plantation.
In 2013, Virginia's State Corporation Commission approved Dominion Power's plan to construct 17 towers in the James River downstream from Jamestown and attach a new high-voltage transmission line. The towers were part of an 8-mile 500kV line, including a 4.1-mile crossing of the James River, to link the nuclear power plant at Surry to the grid on the Peninsula at Skiffe's Creek. Dominion would also build an additional 20 miles of a 230kV line, extending southeast from Skiffe's Creek to the city of Hampton.
the powerline project includes a 500kV crossing of the James River from the nuclear power plant at Surry to Skiffe's Creek, and an extension of the existing 230kV line down the Peninsula to Hampton
Source: Dominion Power, SCC approved route map
Though the shoreline is relatively undeveloped, it is not pristine. The state agency determined that reliable electrical service on the Peninsula was a higher priority than protecting the scenic vista or cultural landscape.
the tallest of the 17 towers across the river would be 295' high
Source: National Park Service, Overview: Proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek Power Line Project over the James River in Virginia’s Historic Triangle
Four of the towers with the 500kV line crossing the James River would be nearly 300 feet high, topped with flashing red lights. That would be tall enough so all ships could pass safely underneath the powerline, but also tall enough to affect the scenic view.
according to Dominion Power's simulation, 300' high towers across the James River would have minimal impact on the scenic view from Jamestown
Source: Dominion Power, Simulations for the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek 500kV route: East End of Jamestown Island
the powerline route runs closer to historic Carter's Grove, and would have obvious impacts on the vista there
Source: Dominion Power, Simulations for the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek 500kV route: Carter's Grove
Dominion stated the new powerline was needed because the utility was retiring the last generating units at the Yorktown Power Station, coal-fired Yorktown Units 1 and 2 and oil-fired Yorktown Unit 3, to meet air quality standards under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Without the generating capacity provided by that power plant when demand peaks, the electrical grid on the Peninsula could not meet standards for providing reliable service in the North Hampton Roads Load Area.
With the retirement of Yorktown, 98% of the electricity used on the Peninsula would come from generating units located west of Richmond. The electricity would be carried by four 230kV transmission lines, and there was no 500kV line into the region.
Dominion characterized the area east of Williamsburg as a weak link in the grid, and the only large population center in the state not connected to the 500kV transmission backbone. Without a better connection to distant generation plants, the utility anticipated rolling blackouts with up to 25% of customers being affected by "load shedding." If there was an unplanted generating plant outage or failure of a powerline:2
Dominion needed approval from the State Corporation Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, approves rates charged to customers, and ensures major new projects are cost-effective. In return, the utility is granted a monopoly to serve a paricular geographic area, and is protected from competition within that service area.
Dominion also needed approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers because the 17 towers were a potential threat to navigation on the James River. The Federal permit required compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 requires consultation with parties interested in historic preservation, but does not require reaching a consensus or compromise agreement:3
In addition to state and Federal approval, Dominion needed the local government to modify the zoning at the Skiffe's Creek substation site. The utility needed to work with three layers of government, with three different approval processes, to get the Skiffe's Creek project approved.
Dominion had hoped to bypass the local approval layer. The State Corporation Commission had ruled that expanding the Skiffe's Creek substation was integral to the transmission line, and had issued a certificate of approval that exempted the utility from the zoning requirements of James City County.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2015, in a 4-3 decision, that the state controlled the decision process for routing powerlines, but the General Assembly had not given the State Corporation Commission authority to issue exemptions to local land use decisions. The court ruled that there was a clear distinction between a switching station (subject to local zoning) and a transmission line (exempt from local zoning):4
James City County retained the authority to approve/reject expansion of the substation, but supervisors postponed that Special Use Permit decision for 18 months until the end of 2016. The local officials knew state approval was final, but waited for the final reports from the Corps of Engineers. If the Federal agency rejected the required permits for crossing the navigable river, there would be no need for the county supervisors to make a controversial decision.
the National Park Service has defined major themes associated with John Smith's journeys on the James River
Source: National Park Service, Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Making the Trail Visible and Visitor Ready: A Plan for the James River Segment
The James City County supervisors, Preservation Virgina, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the National Park Service, and even the College of William and Mary opposed the project. They argued that preservation of the historic setting should receive priority. The utility should bury the transmission lines underground, or bring new powerlines down the Peninsula from Williamsburg rather than across the James River, or maintain electrical generation at Yorktown by retrofitting or repowering Yorktown with other fuel sources, or assume a different set of numbers for the demand for power.
Dominion responded that underground power lines would be "on the cutting edge of technology." The high-risk alternative would not ensure a dependable supply of electricity, and failure to meet reliability standards established by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation would expose Dominion to fines of up to $1 million/day.
In addition, an underwater powerline would cost five times as much. Burying the lines to protect the view would increase the project's cost from $60 million to over $300 million.5
opponents of the powerline, as well as Dominion, have simulated the potential impact on the scenic view
National Trust for Historic Preservation, 3D model of the proposed transmission towers crossing the James River at Jamestown
Dominion also rejected the suggestion of re-powering the Yorktown plant with natural gas. The utility calculated that a 620MW natural gas plant would be required, and the pipelines bringing gas to the region lacked capacity to supply it.
In 2016, an independent company proposed to build a 1,400MW gas-fired power plant on the Elizabeth River. Matex Virginia Power LLC proposed to build the Great Bridge Energy Center next to the former coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center closed in 2014 by Dominion Power. The new power plant would get its supply of natural gas from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, in which Dominion was a majority owner.
the proposed Great Bridge Energy Center (1)), just north of the now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center (2), included no proposal to increase transmission capacity across the James River at the James River Bridge (3) or between the Surry Nuclear Plant (4) and the Skiffe's Creek substation (5)
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The proposal did not include any transmission lines to supply energy to the Peninsula. The Great Bridge Energy Center would sell its electricity into the PJM grid, and Dominion's network of power lines would distribute the electricity to customers. However, placing a new generating facility in South Hampton Roads would offset the need to import electricity from facilities west of Richmond, but did not solve the reliability issues in North Hampton Roads.6
Also in 2016 another company, C4GT, proposed a 1,060MW power plant that would be fueled by natural gas and located in Charles City County, north of the James River. It too would be an independent "merchant" generation facility, not owned by the regulated utility and with the option of selling the electricity to customers in the PJM grid other than Dominion.
Investment in gas-fired power plants involves long-term risks. The cost of electricity generated by solar cells could drop below the cost of electricity generated by large facilities powered by fossil fuels, and potential improvements in battery storage could help solar power become more feasible. As James Bacon, a blogger with close ties to Dominion, noted:7
in 2016 C4GT proposed a 1,060MW electricity generating plant in Charles City County, using natural gas as the fuel
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Proposals to install solar panels to generate electricity might have an impact in 10-20 years, but Dominion claimed greater transmission capacity was required to meet reliability standards as soon as Yorktown Unit 1 and Unit 2 were retired.
The US Navy started a 21MW solar farm on 100 acres at Oceana Naval Air Station in 2016, but Dominon said that over 13,000 acres covered with solar panels would be required to generate an equivalent amount of renewable energy. The utility calculated that a solar farm would have to generate 1,630MW, because generation from a solar panel was equivalent to only 38% of a fossil-fuel facility that could operate 24 hours/day.8
existing powerline towers at the James River Bridge, where US 17 crosses the river over 20 miles downstream from Jamestown
Source: Save the James Alliance, A Gallery of Blight
Dominion also rejected the alternative of building a new 500kV powerline across the James River further downstream. Two 230kV powerlines parallel the James River Bridge, which carries US 17 over the river. Rebuilding them to add a 500kV powerline there would have marginal additional impacts on the scenic vista compared to building the line to Skiffe's Creek.
Dominion rejected that alternative for multiple reasons. There was no excess capacity in South Hampton Roads at the James River Bridge area to transmit across the river to the Peninsula, and taking the existing lines out of service to 500kV capacity would cause a violation of transmission reliability standards during the rebuilding. Dominion projected that associated transmission and generation upgrades would cost $1 billion, and noted that co-locating transmission lines created greater risk of an outage caused by a storm or shipping accident compared to building a new line to Skiffe's Creek.9
one alternative to connecting the Peninsula to the network of 500kv transmission lines was a link from Chuckatuck across the James River bridge, where US 17 crosses
Source: National Parks Conservation Association, Dominion’s Proposed “Surry-Skiffes Creek Project” – Issues and Alternatives (Figure 1)
Dominion proposed a mitigation plan that would cost $85 million for a Skiffe's Creek powerline that would cost $181 million. Opponents highlighted deficiencies, including an inadequate assessment of visual impacts. After the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation advised the Corps to examine the concerns, Dominion revised the viewshed analysis and mitigation plan without increasing projected project costs.10
The mitigation proposals did not create consensus. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put the James River on its 2016 list of most endangered historic sites in the United States.11
historic Carter's Grove would have its viewshed affected more than Jamestown
Source: National Parks Conservation Association, Dominion’s Proposed “Surry-Skiffes Creek Project” – Issues and Alternatives (Figure 2)
The National Park Service still recommended that the Corps of Engineers deny the permit for the proposed overhead line, forcing Dominion to choose an alternative that did not inlude tall towers across the river. In 2016, the Director of the National Park Service was a native Virginian who traced his family back to the arrival of the English ship Diana in 1620. He argued that the long-term value of preserving the historic setting exceeded the short-term cost of an alternative to the Skiffe's Creek powerline:12
The local National Park Service official, the superintendent for Colonial National Historical Park with responsibility for the Jamestown site, said that upgrading the gardens at Carter's Grove to offset the visual impact would not be sufficient:13
The Virginian-Pilot summarized the challenge for the Corps of Engineers:14
Ideally, the Section 106 process established in the National Historic Preservation Act gets stakeholders to agree on the appropriate levels of mitigation, documented in a Memorandum of Agreement among the parties. If the Skiffe's Creek project can not get to that point, then the Corps of Engineers can recommend that Dominion be required to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or terminate the negotiations.
If terminated, then the Corps would provide information about the negotiations and a draft Memorandum of Understanding to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. That group would comment back to the Corps, which would then make a final decision on the permit required by Dominion. Consensus is not a requirement in the permitting process. The objections of the National Park Service and others to the overhead power line/towers can be accepted or rejected by the Federal agency with the responsibility for making the decision.
simulated powerline towers in the James River
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Dominion Power Surry-Skiffes Creek-Whealton Permit Application, Photo Simulations Overview (Viewpoint 05)
the proposed 500kV powerline would connect to an existing 230kV powerline at the Skiffe's Creek substation
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the towers across the James River will be in the Near Horizon viewshed of Jamestown Island
Source: National Park Service, Analysis of Visual Impacts to Historic Properties Proposed Dominion Surry-Skiffes Creek – Whealton Alternative (Figure 3 - Distance Zones)