RICHMOND — Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has been battered by criticism from environmentalists over his support of a new coal-fired power plant for southwest Virginia, which Dominion Virginia Power says is essential to the state’s energy needs but which could also lead to higher utility rates for consumers statewide.

The controversy pits Kaine (D), who has made environmental protection a top priority, against a sizable chunk of his political base, even though the governor said he is powerless to stop the project even if he wanted to. The State Corporation Commission and other regulatory agencies issue the construction permits.

Dominion is pushing to build the $1.8 billion plant in Wise County, in Virginia’s coal country, as part of a multi-pronged strategy for meeting the state’s growing demand for electricity. Dominion will pass the cost of building the project on to ratepayers over a period of years, although company officials said they cannot yet estimate how much the average bill might go up.

The plant, slated to be in operation by 2012, is designed to lessen Dominion’s reliance on electricity produced and transferred from out of state while boosting the slumping economy in southwest Virginia.

“In a state with a growing economy, you need a strategy to make sure when people hit the switch, the lights come on,” said Dominion Vice President Robert M. Blue, who noted that the state’s energy needs will grow by 4,000 megawatts, equivalent to the usage of 1 million homes, over the next decade.

Kaine agrees. “The sustainability of our economic development successes are dependent on having a reliable energy source,” said Delacey Skinner, the governor’s communications director.

Dominion, which has 2.3 million customers in Virginia, said the plant would be “one of the cleanest” coal-fired facilities in the nation because it would have a sophisticated emissions-control system.

But environmentalists are opposed to the project, saying that coal-fired plants are a leading cause of airborne pollution, which has been linked to global climate change. They say Dominion should be investing in more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and encouraging more conservation.

“Global warming is the most serious environmental issue that we face as humanity, and new coal-fired power plants are not part of the equation,” said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

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