Evaluating the Role of Nuclear Energy in Virginia’s Zero-Carbon Electricity Future
Virginia faces unprecedented load growth due to data center development in Dominion territory, a phenomenon which significantly complicates the state’s commitment to a zero-carbon electricity mix and creates enormous risk for Dominion ratepayers. This paper seeks to present stakeholders with a clear sense of the benefits and challenges of meeting surging demand with and without new nuclear facilities. First, I analyze Dominion’s 2023 Integrated Resource Plan to demonstrate the scale of the demand surge and the exorbitant cost of non-compliance with state climate laws. While alternative plans are presented, I find that they ignore real-world factors like local solar opposition and the eventual retirement of the state’s extensive natural gas generation fleet and nuclear plants. Two theoretical portfolios are examined – one which meets Virginia’s 2045 demand with only existing nuclear, variable renewable energy (VRE), and battery storage; and one which incorporates new nuclear. The VRE-reliant portfolio provides material economic benefits, but presents a greater reliability risk and is significantly more land-intensive. I conclude that to meet state climate goals while meeting demand affordably, a) utility planning processes must be more transparent and inclusive; b) local solar bans should be eliminated, while preserving localities ability to consider proposals on a project-by-project basis; c) the state should not permit utilities to gamble on major new nuclear projects in the short-term, and d) community engagement and planning should begin for new nuclear facilities in the medium-term as the demand picture and the economics of new nuclear become clearer.