Virginia Power, a leader among the nation's utilities in buying electricity

from independent power producers, announced plans to build a 400-megawatt coal-fired generating station scheduled for operation in 1997.

The Richmond, Va., utility last brought a coal-burning plant on line in 1973. The last time it added a base-load plant to its system was in 1980 when it opened North Anna nuclear unit No. 2.The company agreed last year to be a joint-venture partner with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, Richmond, Va., in the construction of coal- fired units at Halifax, Va. Those units are expected to start up in 1993 and 1994.

In March 1988, Virginia Power announced an aggressive program for purchasing power from cogenerators and other non-utility electricity producers.

It noted that utilities had been "brought to the brink of financial ruin" or their customers had suffered "rate shock" as a result of the construction of large coal-fired and nuclear generating stations.

In announcing the new 400-Mw plant, to be built at a cost of $543 million, Virginia Power also said this week it plans to buy 442 megawatts of independently produced power.

The purchased power will come from two coal-consuming cogeneration projects and a municipal waste-to-energy facility, the utility said.

"Our analysis indicates that this combination of company and non-company power projects is the most economic and reliable means of meeting projected customer demand between 1995 and 1997," said Larry Ellis, a senior vice president at the utility.

The 400-Mw plant, to be located in one of three central and southern Virginia counties, will consume about 1 million tons of coal annually to be purchased under new contracts, said Carl Baab, a Virginia Power official. He said the plant will be equipped with scrubbers.