A 40-Year Lease on Life for Transmission Tower Foundations

James River transmission-line towers near Newport News sporting new foundations. Photo credits: Dominion Energy.

In 1968 Dominion Energy Virginia erected a series of 18 towers across the James River to carry two transmission lines from south of the river to points in Newport News. The company built the tower foundations with marine-grade, corrosion-resistant steel that was billed to last for decades. By the 1990s, however, it was evident that the steel foundations were eroding. If they deteriorated sufficiently, one of the towers would collapse, putting the Virginia Peninsula at risk of disruption to its electric service.

The utility encapsulated the steel “H pile” foundations with a fiberglass jacket under the waterline and with a putty-like compound above in the hope of preventing further corrosion. The fix didn’t work. A 2013 inspection revealed rust still eating away at the foundation.

“While the 2013 inspection revealed we had a corrosion problem, further investigation found that we had a bigger problem than we thought,” says Mark Allen, Dominion’s director of transmission construction. There was no way of knowing precisely when, he says, but “eventually the towers would have collapsed.”

One remedy would be to build parallel towers and power lines, but that option would cost $50 million. It would be far preferable to repair the foundations in place. But Dominion could not take a chance of knocking the transmission line out of commission by cutting out the bad steel beneath the water and replacing it with good. In 2013, Dominion was under orders to close the two main coal-fired boilers at its Yorktown plant and was struggling to gain regulatory permission to build a new transmission line upriver near Jamestown. There were only two sets of transmission lines serving the Virginia Peninsula, so taking down the Surry-Winchester and Chuckatuck-Newport News lines would have left the entire region vulnerable to blackouts.

Dominion’s engineering staff came up with a solution that wound up costing rate payers only $25 million. The story was chronicled by local media but never given attention elsewhere in the state. When the project garnered recognition by the Southeastern Electric Exchange earlier this year, Bacon’s Rebellion thought it worth re-telling as an example of the trials and tribulations of maintaining an electric transmission grid.

Previous efforts to protect the H piles had not stopped the corrosion.

No one had tackled a job like this before. The foundations of the 18 towers varied in depth between four feet near the riverbanks to 40 feet near the navigation channel, and the company had to cap the foundations to about 15 feet above the waterline, says Allen. The company also had to maneuver around restrictions on time and location due to protections for osprey and cormorant nests on multiple towers, a peregrine falcon nest on the nearby James River Bridge, and fish migrations from Feb. 15 to June 30, not to mention weather conditions.

Divers entered the water, which was so dark at times that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, to install clips on the side of each H pile. To these clips they fastened rebar cages. Around the rebar cages, the construction contractor put in an epoxy-fiberglass jacket to facilitate the pouring of a “cementitous grout” that would become the new foundations for the towers. The design, which fully shielded the old “H-pile” foundations from the concrete caps above water to four feet below the water line, eliminated the need to cut out existing steel below the water surface.

“We were able to use what was there,” says Allen, who commends the creativity of the engineering team. “Instead of an H pile supporting the tower, we have a rebar cage and concrete encapsulation.”

The retrofit, which was completed in 2015, should last another 40 years.

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8 responses to “A 40-Year Lease on Life for Transmission Tower Foundations”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s interesting they did this at the same time they were telling people there was no other way to get power to the peninsula except at Skiffes Creek-Surry.

  2. The transmission line was already supplying power to the Peninsula. Taking it down would have put reliability at risk.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      … and you could not add to it or beef it up since you had to do the work anyhow?

  3. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    Seems strange that they want to build more towers across the river, then. Appears this is a difficult engineering challenge. Shame to force the issue near Jamestown.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Crossing the James at that location was an obvious option to, at the least, include in any study … especially when you consider that Dominion is providing what..80 million dollars in mitigation alone for the Surry crossing.. that’s MORE than what they SAVED .. on the downstream work!

    I’ve said all along.. Dominion is after what is best for them – and not necessarily what makes sense to …and for others.. the public.. taxpayers, ratepayers and Virginia. That ought not surprise anyone .. that’s the job of most Corporate entities.. but when public resources are involved.. there ought to be a more legitimate process for considering costs and benefits than just what Dominion wants..

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Dominion Energy is the Donald Trump of the Virginia economy – even when its actions makes sense people hate it. Larry, the whole point of the new power line to the Peninsula is redundancy, and beefing up the current line would still leave you screwed if that one went down. I’m not an engineer, but I’m a politician – Dominion would NOT be going through the grief it is getting over these power line projects unless they were necessary expansions – the benefit is way below the political cost.

    We need to watch them on the big dollars, though :).

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I bet $50 million for Dominion gets lost in the rounding.

    Redundancy is important for all utility services serving large areas. There is probably something in electric industry best practices that addresses both redundancy and rehabilitating older facilities when practicable instead of constructing new.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Steve – I was talking about the possibility of a second line at that crossing.. feeding back to the Surry and south central Va sources…

    the existing line with the loss of the Chesapeake coal plant .. where it it going to get power to take across now?

    I do believe in the redundancy issue but that’s not the reason that Dominion gave… they said there is not enough power…and that there could be blackouts…

    I asked before -where are they getting power right now if the Yorktown plants are closed?

    Should we care about the wheres and why’s here or just take it on face value what Dominion is saying… when clearly what they are saying is not what the facts are..

    we should care about that. we should care that in their environmental documents – they never mentioned the possibility of a second crossings next to the existing one – as an alternative to crossing at Jamestown.

    we should care that the justification for the Jamestown crossing is the possibility of blackouts on the Peninsula when Yorktown is closed and apparently they are getting enough power from other sources.. where are they getting the power right now?

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