Executive assesses Dominion’s alternative energy optionsMarch 29, 2011 6:00 AM
by Robert Powell
Photo by Mark Rhodes
Mary Doswell is the point person for Dominion Resources in the new frontier of alternative energy.
From her office on the fourth floor of Dominion’s headquarters overlooking the James River, Doswell monitors its growing involvement in a wide spectrum of new-energy ventures, including solar power and offshore wind.
But she is quick to note that Dominion’s concept of alternative energy involves more than renewables. Her concerns include smart-grid technologies, electric vehicles, distributed generation (such as solar roofs), fuel cells and battery storage in addition to large renewable energy projects, which could potentially generate thousands of megawatts of electricity. “We really cover the gamut because all of it is part of the picture,” she says.
Dominion is the parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility with 2.4 million customer accounts. Doswell, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and with a master’s degree from MIT, joined the company as an economist in 1982. Since then, she has served in a number of capacities, including senior vice president-regulation and integrated planning, and president and CEO of Dominion Resources Services Inc.
Dominion’s goal is to generate 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, a voluntary target set by the commonwealth. “That’s the state energy plan, and we will achieve it, either through built or owned renewable generation or purchase of renewable energy credits,” Doswell says.
Doswell’s group serves as a kind of research-and-development unit for alternative energy. It develops alternative-energy projects and then hands them over to traditional parts of the business, such as transmission distribution. “We need to get these things to a stage where they are ready for prime time,” she says.
One of her current projects is a $27.9 million, 4-megawatt solar and battery storage demonstration project in Halifax County, which is scheduled to begin operations next year. It eventually will be transferred to Dominion’s generation group, which already oversees the company’s onshore wind projects.
Doswell also is keeping Dominion’s hand in emerging plans for offshore wind energy. In February, the Obama Administration announced in Norfolk that it might lease wind-energy sites off the Atlantic Coast later this year. “We are very much in the mix and trying to stay on top of how that could develop,” she says.
Meanwhile, Doswell is trying to create a hospitable climate for the newest generation of electric and hybrid vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf. As a member of a community group called the Sustainable Transportation Initiative in Richmond (STIR), she helped the capital city become a target market for the Focus. She also is in the thick of discussions about establishing public charging stations. Because of the avid acceptance of hybrids in some parts of the state, especially in Northern Virginia and the Charlottesville area, Dominion expects electric vehicles to represent 5 percent of the state’s new car sales by 2025.
In addition to STIR, Doswell’s community service includes work with Venture Richmond, the St. Catherine’s School Foundation, the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences and the Richmond Ballet. She is also president of Poseidon Swimming Foundation, which is building a $15 million aquatic center in Chesterfield County.
Her ties to Poseidon and St. Catherine’s are through her five daughters, one of whom is a year-round competitive swimmer. When she’s not in the office or attending a civic meeting, “I run around to kids’ sporting events,” she says.
Virginia Business: Why is Dominion investing in alternative energy?
Doswell: First, I’d like to define alternative energy as we have it at Dominion. It is not just renewables. It includes smart-grid technologies, distributed generation (that’s solar and micro-turbines for wind at a customer location), electric vehicles, all the way over to your large-scale solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, fuel cells and battery storage. We really cover the gamut because all of it is part of the picture. It is not just what you can do with large-scale renewable resources. There is much to be gained from [eliminating] inefficiencies on the transmission and distribution side of the business and a lot of technology there that we can take advantage of.
We are investing because there is, more or less, this transformation going on in the industry. There is a focus on technology on the transmission/distribution side —information technology and energy technology coming together to create a lot of change, a lot of opportunity and a real transformation in how we can view the business. And then there are the opportunities on the renewable side. So we’re very interested in being a part of this, being a player and one that can leverage all of these new opportunities in our portfolio.
VB: How big of a role do you expect alternative energy to play in your overall generation portfolio?
Doswell: We have filed a plan that shows that, by 2025, 15 percent of our generation would be renewables. That’s the state energy plan, and we will achieve it, either through built or owned renewable generation or purchase of renewable energy credits.
The other piece is the energy efficiency side. We have a goal of a 10 percent reduction of our 2006 megawatt hours by 2022. We have plans in order to meet that. So, we’re working both sides: Are there things that we can do towards energy efficiency — reducing the number of kilowatt hours used — all the way over to using renewables?
There are some other things on the horizon. If offshore wind takes off and becomes cost effective, there’s capability of generating anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 megawatts. Also, distributed generation — solar panels on rooftops — is another opportunity that we have to integrate into our mix, and we are interested in utility-owned distributed generation that we would provide or offer to customers to put on their rooftops. So, it’s basically taking it away from the central power plant concept and saying we now have distributed resources of generation throughout the system.
VB: Could you tell me about some of the projects that you’re currently involved in?
Doswell: [Dominion’s] generation group is handling some of the biomass and onshore wind projects. The one that we have that we will be handing over to the generation group is a large-scale solar project in Halifax County that we hope will be filed by the end of the year with the State Corporation Commission. That is 4 megawatts of solar panels and 12½ megawatt hours of battery storage. It’s the combination of those that make that project very unique.
VB: Now battery storage is part of your mission statement.
VB: So are you investing in battery-storage type projects?
Doswell: We actually have invested in a battery-storage company. We are very interested in their technology. We’ll be using a different company that’s yet to be named on this Halifax solar project. [Battery storage projects] are starting to really get some scale. There are a couple of installations that are approaching 20 megawatts, which is pretty good sized.
VB: Is that a crucial part of the puzzle as far as some of these intermittent power sources?
Doswell: Absolutely. As you know with solar and wind power, one of the drawbacks is the intermittency, and so to the extent that the battery storage can smooth that out, it’s very critical. It would really improve those resources.
VB: Let’s talk a little bit about offshore wind. Tell me what your plans are.
Doswell: I’m on the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority. That’s the governor-appointed group. Someone on my staff is the vice chairman of the Virginia Offshore Wind Coalition, which was started a couple of years ago. We are talking to all of the different parties to make sure that we understand the steps that will be coming [in developing offshore wind]. We anticipate a [federal government request for public comment on offshore wind energy] in the next month or two, and Dominion does plan on responding to that as an interested party. We have been monitoring it, working with different groups, talking to different stakeholders —understanding the cost and the transmission issues — so we are very much in the mix and trying to stay on top of how that could develop.
VB: What about this initiative that the Department of Energy announced in early February [to support offshore wind energy projects]?
Doswell: They announced parcels [for potential lease], one of which was off the coast of Virginia. They are going to kick off some environmental studies. They also announced about $50.5 million in funding in three buckets, two of which probably won’t affect us. One is for blade development and the other is for turbines. Then the third bucket is to help with research and obstacles. We haven’t really looked closely enough to see if we would have some opportunities there to go after some of that funding or not.
VB: Now, talking about manufacturing of turbines and that sort of thing, is that an area that you’re interested in investing in?
Doswell: I think we have to see how it develops. What we try to do is look at a number of these technologies and [find out] what it takes to make these things work. A lot of times it’s partnerships or investments. ... There’s a supply chain in Europe for offshore wind. There is not one yet in the U.S., and I think that’s critical to help support the industry, and it’s also critical to bring costs down.
You have to have scale to accomplish a supply chain. So it’s somewhat like a chicken and an egg in that you have to have a certain amount of offshore wind before the suppliers are interested. That’s the challenge. If we can get enough moving as far as commitments or understanding of how this will work, then we think it will start flowing. The costs need to come down in order to make these things competitive and actually a resource that we could use.
VB: In Hampton Roads there seems to be a lot of interest from the shipbuilding industry.
Doswell: I think we have an advantage because we have ports and shipbuilding in Virginia. We also know that these turbines are much bigger than onshore turbines, and they cannot be transported over the highways. We know you need to be able to manufacture and put these things together close to the coast so that you can then get them out into the water. So, we definitely have opportunities in Virginia because of the infrastructure we already have in place. I think that’s why Northrop Grumman and Gamesa [Technology Corp.] announced their partnership. [The companies are working on wind turbine technology at the Offshore Wind Technology Center in Chesapeake.]
VB: What needs to happen for alternative energy sources to become competitive?
Doswell: We need some scale for offshore wind particularly, and we need to have a diligent effort on bringing those costs down from an engineering perspective so it’s sustainable. As for solar, we currently have subsidies, but those costs are coming down and are becoming quite competitive. That’s one that’s making it or getting close. But offshore wind has to go through those same steps: getting the cost down, developing the technology and getting enough scale.
VB: Will subsidies still have to be part of the package for a while?
Doswell: Yes, definitely.
VB: How is this new supply of natural gas from Marcellus shale changing the equation as far as how viable some of these alternative sources are going to be?
Doswell: It definitely changes the economics because you have low-cost gas. Just a year or two ago, gas prices were climbing. All of those things having [have(?)]a significant effect on all forms of alternative energy. You’re always comparing them to traditional sources. They more or less have to make it on their own.
VB: Now, one of the things that you mentioned was hybrid vehicles. Is that an area that you’ve gotten involved in?
Doswell: Yes, we see electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid/electric vehicles making great progress in coming to the market. We have some in our service territory already. On Jan. 31, we filed new electric-vehicle rate tariffs to encourage off-peak charging. Ford, of course, made the announcement that Richmond is a target city for the Ford Focus, and Washington, D.C., is a target area for the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf.
Now the Chevy Volt is 40 miles electric on the battery and then it kicks over to a gasoline engine. So the range anxiety issues won’t be there. The Nissan Leaf has a range of about 100 miles.
We think the load on these electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf in 2012 will be about 6.6 kilowatts, and that’s roughly the average of a residence load. That’s something that we really need to be watching for our transmission/distribution system.
But we are encouraging the off-peak charging from the get-go. Then it should not present any problems. Also, there are some bills [passed by] the General Assembly addressing third-party public charging and allowing the sale of electricity for transportation purposes. That would open it up for public charging facilities. [The legislation would allow a company to purchase power from a utility and then resell to electric vehicle owners.]
VB: This would be essentially a filling station for electric vehicles?
Doswell: Exactly. That’s in the works. So the issue is the infrastructure. In order for these really to go, that will need to be addressed, although at the start we think about 80 percent of the charging will be done at home.
VB: Now, what about any kind of charging technology? Are you interested in that?
Doswell: Basically it can be a standard plug. It varies as to how fast you want to charge. So the 120-volt standard plug in a home will be slower charging. We think it will very quickly go to the 240-volt [plug], which is about a three- to five-hour charge. Then, fast charging is 15 minutes, and that’s about a 480-volt. That’s what your public charging [station] will be.
VB: You mentioned digital smart-grid application. What exactly does that mean and what are you doing in that area?
Doswell: A smart grid is looking, first of all, at the installation of smart meters. They give more frequent information as to consumption and usage. It also can give information on voltage at a location. We have a product that we’ve developed that allows us then to actually close in on the voltage and reduce energy consumption.
So smart grid is really the flow — it’s this intersection of information technology and energy technology. It’s more data, more information in order to make better decisions on how we operate our grid. That means you can have distributed generation at a customer location [such as solar roofs], and you can use that to help optimize the grid.
VB: I understand those smart meters have been distributed in the Charlottesville area.
Doswell. Yes Midlothian, Charlottesville and now the Falls Church area in Northern Virginia.
VB: Is that going to be statewide eventually?
Doswell: We hope it will be. We are getting all of the information. These are demonstration locations gathering more data so that we can make sure it all works before we deploy to the full customer base.
VB: What about the green generation program [in which customers can choose to receive power from “green” energy resources]? How is that going?
Doswell: That’s actually gone quite well. There’s been pretty steady growth in the program. We’ve got more than more than 12,000 customers. [About 60 percent are in Northern Virginia.]
VB: What is happening with the Dominion GreenTech Incubator in Hanover County?
Doswell: We are seeing some very neat and good companies coming in there. We’ve really been pleased with the interest without a whole lot of marketing going on of what we have there. So that’s something I think that will really provide us some benefits in the long run.
VB: I noticed that you are on the board of the Sustainable Transportation Initiative in Richmond. What sort of things are you working on there?
Doswell: The group was started a couple of years ago. I came onboard because you can’t do much with your electric vehicle unless you can charge it. So the power company needs to be involved in this discussion. One of the big things we were working on was to attract Ford and to show them that Richmond would be a good target city [for electric cars].
Now what we want to focus on in the region is infrastructure and preparedness so that we don’t fall on our face. What do dealerships need as far as information? Are we ready at Dominion to provide information to [electric car] customers on what they need to have in their homes?
In STIR, we are trying to touch on the various areas. It’s not just electric vehicles. It’s also other forms of transportation. We are trying to get to a place where we can have more bike paths and other things available in the Richmond area.
VB: Now one of your other interests I noticed here is the Poseidon Swim Foundation. How did you get involved there?
Doswell: I have a daughter who swims year-round, and Poseidon wanted to build a large aquatic center in the Richmond area. We are just so void of good aquatic centers … where you can have really high-level competition. So I started in on this a couple of years ago. We have a site at Ukrop Park at Chippenham and Route 10. I just think for the community it would be tremendous to have a 50-meter, Olympic-sized pool and a 25- yard warm-up pool in a nice facility.
VB: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you want to talk about?
Doswell: I think that this stuff is just so much fun because it’s just changing every day. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no one answer. There’s no one who can say: This technology is the way to go, or it’s going to be fuel cells or it’s going to be solar. It’s going to be probably all of those things … Building a power plant isn’t simple, but we’ve done that numerous times. We now have to figure out how to make some of these other things. There are business opportunities that we think we can help or be part of in the industry.