- By Alex Koma firstname.lastname@example.org
State regulators are now taking a second look at whether Dominion Energy actually needs to build a new power line through parts of Gainesville and Haymarket, a substantial victory for opponents of the controversial project.
On Dec. 6, the State Corporation Commission ordered a new set of hearings on the proposed 230-kilovolt power line, which is set to reach a data center facility adjacent to Interstate 66 in Haymarket. Dominion has pushed to build the project for about three years now, claiming that it’s necessary to both power the data center (owned by a subsidiary of Amazon) and improve the reliability of electric service in western Prince William County.
But people living along the line’s proposed path have fought the project tooth and nail over concerns that it will mar their properties and damage the environment. One group opposing the project, the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, has mounted a series of regulatory challenges to Dominion’s arguments about why it needs to build the power line in the first place as part of its advocacy efforts.
Now, the SCC is poised to examine that question in more detail, and regulators could act to block the project entirely if they don’t see a clear need for the new power line.
“I hope this means that the days of a state-regulated utility walking over the citizenry are over,” said Elena Schlossberg, the coalition’s executive director. “This is unprecedented…It just shows that there are serious deficiencies with their proposal.
Dominion spokesman Chuck Penn wrote in an email that the company is “looking forward to providing the commission with the requested information about this important project and continuing to provide reliable energy to customers in the Haymarket region.”
The utility company has argued for years that rapid development in the county’s western end is straining the reliability of the company’s electric service in the area, and the utility doesn’t expect demand to tail off anytime soon.
Yet the project’s opponents, particularly the coalition, claim that Amazon’s data center is driving the need for the project, which they don’t believe is a good reason to pursue the power line. Additionally, the group claims Amazon’s attorneys admitted to federal regulators that the facility won’t need the data center to function unless the company adds two additional buildings to the site, which it may never do — Dominion and Amazon’s attorneys believe the coalition is mistaken on those assertions, and argue that the facility will need the power line to ever become fully operational.
Staff for the SCC has yet to address the validity of those arguments, but they did recommend that the commission hold more evidentiary hearings on the matter back in August. Regulators didn’t need to follow that advice, but they wrote in the new order that they intend to examine “the issue of need for the proposed project” as well as what path it could someday follow if it moves forward.
“This goes to show the arguments the coalition has put forward are gaining traction, and have viability and credibility,” said Del.-elect Danica Roem, D-13th District, who will represent the area in Richmond when she takes office in January. “This exactly why we should be doing everything we can to support the coalition.”
Dominion has had to repeatedly revise the power line’s route over the years, as property owners and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors have managed to block several routes for the project and stymie Dominion’s plans. The utility is currently hoping to build the line on overhead towers along I-66, but the commission has yet to weigh in on that request.
A “hearing examiner” with the SCC will set the next steps for reviewing the project following this order, laying out a schedule for additional hearings and collecting more evidence from all interested parties. Schlossberg admits that she isn’t sure exactly how things will proceed (because of how rare it is for the SCC to re-open a case like this), but she is optimistic that regulators seem more open to hearing the coalition’s arguments based on this latest order.
Roem will certainly be watching that process closely. As a fierce power line opponent, she was mulling joining Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, to introduce legislation to require that Dominion bury the line underground. Yet, even as a candidate, she urged lawmakers to wait on the coalition’s challenge to the project to play out before taking action, and she’s heartened to see regulators examining the issue in more detail.
“Burying the lines is the last resort,” Roem said. “This goes to show what the power of persistence can do.”