View from Historic Jamestown settlement overlooking the James River.
View from Historic Jamestown settlement overlooking the James River. - 
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The electric utility Dominion proposes to build a transmission power line over a stretch of the James River near historic Jamestown in southeastern Virginia.

Here is one:What would it look like? How intrusive? Not surprisingly, it depends whom you ask.

Dominion has created photo simulations suggesting views of the river would be minimally obstructed.

Opponents of the power line at the National Trust for Historic Preservation have prepared a 3-D simulation suggesting a far more dramatic intrusion.

In a way, this fight is a story of two companies separated by about 400 years. In 1607, a private enterprise known as the Virginia Company crossed the Atlantic and sailed up a river that settlers named the James River. Jamestown became England’s first long-term settlement in America (star social studies students among you will recall an earlier settlement off today's North Carolina became the Lost Colony).

Like my fourth-grader, you’ve likely heard of the main players in this story: Captain John Smith, the House of Burgesses, Pocahontas, John Rolfe, the Powhatan tribe. During my visit, on-site archaeologist Danny Schmidt happened to be speaking with a group of teenage visitors. He emphasized the Virginia Company began as a business startup.

A gravesite in Historic Jamestown.

In a way, the old story of Jamestown is new history: archaeologists are furiously digging up new artifacts every day, and in the process revising the assumed narrative of life in the settlement. Check out this cool 3D simulation of one recent find.

Central to this story is the stretch of the James River by the historic site. Congress designated it a national historic trail. But the Virginia Company’s story is endangered by the Dominion Company, the country’s third-largest utility. Dominion wants to build its transmission line about 3.5 miles from Jamestown Island.

Why? Dominion plans to retire two coal-fired power plants on the peninsula where Jamestown is located to adhere to Environmental Protection Agency pollution rules.

Nearly 600,000 people use power on this peninsula, which is home to Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, the historic Yorktown Battlefield, two universities and the naval shipyard at Newport News. To replace energy generated by these plants and maintain a reliable source of power — i.e., no blackouts — Dominion plans to deliver electricity via a high-voltage transmission line

Are there viable alternatives to this line? This is the essence of the fight. Dominion maintains it has considered all reasonable options, and this is the most technically and financially feasible. Opponents disagree. Just about every assertion in this debate is challenged, the same way every bullet fired by a Jamestown settler was returned by a Powhatan arrow. A few examples:

Danny Schmidt speaks with visitors.

When will the coal plants really close?

National Trust for Historic Preservation:It could be well after that, because a recent Supreme Court ruling kicked back to a lower court the EPA pollution regulation in question.Dominion: Soon, as in summer 2017, due to EPA regulations. This risks blackouts on high-use days.

Are there nonwire alternatives to this transmission line?


Dominion:
None of the above comes close to the scale of energy required.Save the James: Many emerging options exist to help meet electricity demand: renewable energy, small local power plants, microgrids, negotiating with big users to cut their demand at peak hours. The role of these has not been seriously explored.

 

 

Can you bury the power line underwater?

Dominion: The cost is four times higher. And the most technically feasible underwater line would carry only 230 kilovolts (kV), which is not enough power to meet long-term demand. So the proposed 500 kV line over water is the best option.

Save the James: How about two 230 kV lines? Or a 345 kV line? As for the cost, if you spread it out over lots of people and time, it amounts to a few cents per bill.

Should the permitting authorities take more time to study the issue?

Dominion: There’s no time left. The coal plants are retiring soon, and without a transmission line, the peninsula risks blackouts. 

National Trust: The Army Corps of Engineers, the permitting authority, should conduct an environmental impact statement in adherence with federal laws. If Dominion were in such a hurry, it should have proposed the line earlier.


One thing to keep in mind: Financial analysts consider transmission lines good business strategy for Dominion. And this $42 billion company is politically powerful. It happens to be the biggest political donor in Virginia, a state with no donor limits.

Finally, some perspective on the scale of the proposed transmission lines’ towers over the James River. Four of the 17 towers would rise as tall as the Statue of Liberty. These towers about 15 miles downstream are about that high.

Transmission line towers at James River Bridge in Newport News, Virginia.
Transmission line towers at James River Bridge in Newport News, Virginia. - 
Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott