Dominion tests 51-MW power plant in Altavista, Virginia, after completing coal-to-biomass conversion, with plans to begin commercial operations within two weeks; company will have four biomass-only stations in Virginia once all plants back online

LYNCHBURG, Virginia , May 2, 2013 () – Small chunks of wood streamed onto a mountain of wood chips nearly 100 feet high, towering over workers making final adjustments at Dominion's just-reopened Altavista Power Station last Friday as the plant fired up its boilers for the first time in about 2 1/2 years.

The plant -- reconfigured to burn biomass, or waste wood products, instead of coal -- currently is testing equipment. It is expected to be commercially online within two weeks.

The station will produce 51 megawatts of electricity when operating at full capacity, enough to power about 12,750 homes. The plant will have 30 employees with a combined annual payroll of $2.8 million, and provide thousands more dollars each year to the town in taxes.

Town officials signed off on a special-use permit for the project in 2011 after voicing concerns about truck traffic delivering wood products to the plant daily.

Dominion officials are confident a plan to restrict truck traffic to two routes to and from the plant will mitigate impact on town neighborhoods. Some Town Council members, though, are reserving judgment.

"Time will tell whether or not this is a good thing for Altavista," said Mayor Mike Mattox, who voted against the special-use permit in part because of concerns about trucks traveling through a school zone and wear on area roads.

Most of the wood -- pieces of stumps, branches and other wood waste -- comes from surrounding localities and is delivered daily by tractor trailers. About 100 trucks are expected to deliver wood to the plant each day, carrying up to 26 tons each.

The plant's wood yard will store about 14 days of fuel, or 30,000 tons. Two four-story tall boilers burn about 85 tons of wood per hour.

The burning wood turns the turbines, which powers the generator to create energy to be distributed on the grid to customers.

During town meetings in April 2011, truck traffic was one concerns expressed by Altavista residents. Many were worried the project would triple the truck traffic already driving through Altavista to Dominion's biomass plant just across the Staunton River, in Pittsylvania County.

Dominion and town officials hope restricting truck traffic to and from U.S. 29 to Main Street or Pittsylvania Avenue will address those concerns. Trucks are not allowed in other parts of the town, and only 50 trucks are permitted on Pittsylvania Avenue per day.

Stu Gintchell, manager of fossil and hydro projects for Dominion, said the plant has not received any complaints about the wood deliveries, which began March 29.

Vice-Mayor Beverly Dalton said she was pleased the plant was reopening, especially with the addition of jobs. She acknowledged truck traffic will have to be monitored and discussed with Dominion if issues arise, but anticipates few problems.

"Obviously the truck traffic is a concern and we'll have to re-evaluate it as time goes on," she said.

Work on reconfiguring the plant began in the fall 2011. Dominion needed to construct a new delivery method for bringing the wood to the boilers, modify the boilers, change the ash removal system and install new fans.

Of the people let go when the plant closed in 2010, "a good number" have been rehired, although Gintchell said he was unsure of the exact number. As of last Friday, 28 positions were filled.

The plant is expected to create about 100 new logging and trucking jobs in the region, with an estimated $4.2 million annual payroll, Dominion spokesman Greg Edwards said.

Altavista's power station is one of three reconfigured biomass plant projects across Virginia. Once the plants are back online, Dominion will have four completely biomass stations. The biggest and first fully biomass plant for Dominion is in Pittsylvania County, which is visible across the river from the top of the Altavista plant.

Before the Altavista plant closed, it operated about 20 percent of the time. It is now expected to operate 85 percent of the time.

Bringing the power station back online is slated to bring thousands of dollars to the area annually through taxes, said Dominion Spokesman Greg Edwards.

Throughout the estimated 30-year life of the plant, Edwards predicts Altavista will receive a total $1.7 million and Campbell County will get $5.3 million in taxes.

Customers will see some economic benefits from the biomass plant, too, due to tax relief when it is starting up, Edwards said.

The power station is helping Dominion reach its goal of generating 15 percent of its electricity using renewable resources by 2025.

"Biomass is considered a carbon-neutral form of energy because as trees grow they take carbon dioxide out of the air," Edwards said.

Burning biomass gives off safer emissions than coal, he said.

"It's going to provide environmental benefits and customer benefits for us," Edwards said.

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