Category Archives: Resilience

Bacon Bits: Rails, Roads, Hurricanes and Rainbows

Still off the tracks. Despite promising efforts by top-level management, the Washington Metro corporate culture is still dysfunctional. An audit of $1.9 million in blanket purchase agreements found missing and incomplete documents, reports the Washington Times.

“Auditors found that Metro employees failed to record $845,000 as BPAs in their accounting software, a problem the inspector general attributed to poor controls and lack of staff training,” the newspaper reports. “As a result, $1.8 million of the $1.9 million sampled contained internal control issues.”

Long and winding road. Southwest Virginia’s twisty, windy roads have been long considered a barrier to economic development because they are so inhospitable to commercial trucking. But local promoters in Tazewell County have turned Route 16 into a tourist magnet. The road, dubbed “Back of the Dragon,” provides gut-wrenching turns and spectacular vistas. Last year an estimated 60,000 motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts passed through the nearby 4,240-person town of Tazewell.

Chris Cannon, executive director of Friends of Southwest Virginia, told the New York Times: “We focus on natural and cultural assets” rather than coal, tobacco and lumber. The region has a bluegrass heritage trail, a crafts collective, and outdoor activities like ATV, riding, hiking, mountain biking, and river running. “We as a region are trying to diversify.”

Resiliency reminder. Former Hurricane Michael was only a tropical storm by the time it barreled through Virginia, but it still caused havoc. Some 585,000 customers in Dominion Energy’s Virginia and North Carolina service territory lost their electric power. As of 7 a.m. Friday, nearly 450,000 still had lights out. reported Dominion in a press release this morning:

Early reports of damage include broken poles, cross arms and downed wire in many locations, as well as transmission lines impacted due to tree damage. There were multiple reports of tornadoes within our service territory. In Northern Neck, a tornado touched down and damaged a Dominion Energy substation.

I hope Dominion is keeping good numbers. Legislators and the public will want an after-action report, with a particular focus on the efficacy of the utility’s undergrounding program. How many underground lines experienced disruption compared to the number that would have been predicted before the lines were buried? How much time did Dominion’s repair teams save as a consequence, and how many customer-hours of electric outages were avoided?

Who’s got the brightest rainbow? The city of Richmond scored higher on the Municipal Equality Index, a scorecard measuring municipal policies regarding the LGBTQ community, than the People’s Republic of Arlington and the People’s Republic of Charlottesville — and Mayor Levar Stoney is darn proud of it. “I am delighted that Richmond is able to progress at this level,” said Stoney in a recent press release drawing attention to the ranking.

“Diversity and inclusion are … cornerstones for attracting and retaining residents, top talent, and industry,” wrote Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in a letter published in the MEI study. “Cities that do not guarantee equal rights to LGBTQ send a strong unwelcoming message to potential visitors, residents, and investors, stymying their potential for economic advancement. In short, many businesses and top talent consider LGBTQ discrimination a deal breaker. … It pays to prioritize inclusion.”

Shoreline Resiliency Funds for Hampton Roads?

In 2016 former Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that set up a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses elevate their properties to safeguard against sea level rise. Just one problem, says the Virginian-Pilot. The fund has no dedicated revenue source. Two years later, “the well is dry.”

Now the Virginia Conservation Network is calling for the state to contribute $50 million to the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund. “The coastal communities need help,” says Karen Forget with Lynnhaven River Now, a member of the environmental network. “This is a huge, really unprecedented, issue for the coastal communities all up and down the East Coast. We definitely need assistance.”

Virginia’s coastal tidewater region is highly vulnerable to flooding caused by land subsidence and a rising sea level. The inundations are increasing in frequency, and, according to some, will get worse as global warming intensifies and sea level rise accelerates. Even if you don’t buy the alarmist global-warming scenarios, there is no disputing that the sea level has been rising at a steady rate for more than a century and will continue to do so, or that land around Hampton Roads has been subsiding and will continue to do so. The flooding of coastal Virginia is one of the most predictable crises in history.

The million-dollar questions are (1) what should we do about it, and (2) who should pay for it? It’s not surprising that representatives from the Hampton Roads metro area are begging the state for money. Who can blame them? That’s what everyone does. And there is a case to be made that in a Commonwealth such as Virginia, we’re all in this together, and other regions should help out.

However, when Hampton Roads asks for $50 million, a not inconsiderable sum, the rest of the state need not write a blank check. Let’s face it, it will take a lot more than $50 million to adapt to rising sea levels — it will take billions of dollars — and we can safely say that this request for state funds will be only the first of many in the years ahead.

While inland Virginia has a moral obligation to help Coastal Virginia, the obligation is not an open-ended, no-strings-attached commitment. Coastal Virginia needs to take actions, which, at the very least, will stop increasing the region’s exposure to flooding. Ideally, the region should take steps to reduce its exposure to flooding. And that will mean curtailing coastal development.

Now, I’m a free-market kind of guy, and I think people should be able to build where they want to (as long as they don’t cause harm to others). So, if someone wants to build a $5 million house on the beachfront, be my guest. But I don’t believe people have no right to expect society to insulate them from the risks they’re taking by, say, subsidizing their hurricane and flood insurance. Nor do I believe that they have a right to insist that society provide infrastructure — flood-proof roads, water, sewer, electricity, etc. — at any cost to beachfront dwellers need to sustain themselves in the facing of rising waters and increase funds.

That $50 million revolving fund will be used to help people put their houses on stilts. That may be a reasonable use of the money (although I’d like to see the fine print). But it doesn’t come close to addressing the massive unfunded liability Coastal Virginia has created for itself. Inland Virginians should extend a hand of assistance to their brethren on the coast — and insist they get serious about reducing their liabilities.

Update: Today’s Washington Post headline: “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.” Yeah, right. That’s what they said ten years ago…. and twenty years ago. Those of us who remember past doomsday prophecies have become inured. But you don’t have to believe in global climate catastrophe to acknowledge that flooding risks on the Virginia coastline are real and slowly but steadily getting worse.

The Cyber Threat to Utilities Just Got Scarier

Russian hackers have broken into the control rooms of U.S. utilities where they could cause blackouts, federal officials have told the Wall Street Journal.

The Russian hackers, who worked for a shadowy state-sponsored group previously identified as Dragonfly or Energetic Bear, broke into supposedly secure “air gapped” or isolated networks owned by utilities with relative ease by first penetrating the networks of key vendors who had trusted relationships with the power companies., said officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

“They got to the point where they could have thrown switches” and disrupted power flows, said Jonathan Homer, chief of industrial-control-system analysis for DHS.

Federal authorities did not identify which utilities had been compromised.

Needless to say, all manner of groups — from the North American Electric Reliability Council, the federal agency that regulates electric reliability, to PJM Interconnection, which oversees the regional grid of which Virginia is a part, to the electric utilities themselves — are paying very close attention to this issue.  The obvious question for Virginians is this: What can state legislators and regulators do… if anything?

One of the aims of the Grid Modernization and Security Act of 2018, enacted this year, is to upgrade the electric transmission and distribution systems maintained by Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power Co., and the electric cooperatives. Priorities include protecting the grid against terrorist attacks and cyber attacks, although it is not clear yet what additional resources will be allocated to those efforts. Whatever conversation occurs, much of it will be behind closed doors on the not-unreasonable grounds that we don’t want to tip off the bad guys to what we’re doing.

But public involvement would helpful in some areas. What grid configuration would be the most secure? One could make the argument that a centralized grid operated by a handful of players would be easier to protect from cyber-intrusion than a grid with many players that is only as secure as the most vulnerable among them.

Conversely, one could argue that a distributed grid would be preferable. It would be easier for the Russkies (or Chinese, or Iranians, or North Koreans) to take out, say, a nuclear power plant or to overload a critical transmission line than it would be to take out thousands of small rooftop generators connected by a micro-grid.

The answers to such questions would shape the kind of electric grid that will best serve the interests of all Virginians.

Bacon’s Rebellion is in the process of organizing a roundtable on the Future Grid to discuss issues just like this. Right now, we are looking for a neutral venue (not tied to any particular faction or interest group) to host the first meeting. If you would like to participate or can suggest a meeting location, please contact me.

How Coal Saved the Grid in January

The 2017-18 Bomb Cyclone

The twelve days between Dec. 27, 2017, and Jan. 8 this year saw one of the longest and most intense deep freezes ever recorded for the East Coast. Snow, ice and frigid temperatures plunged much of the United States into winter misery for a seemingly endless period.

The so-called “bomb cyclone” also put the East Coast electric grid under intense stress. The period of Jan. 4-6 accounted for three of the top ten winter demand days in the history of PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part. Electricity consumption and output surged 21% over average daily loads.

Were it not for the ability to fire up old coal and oil power plants, many of which are scheduled for phasing out, the regional grid would have been overloaded and the system would have been hit with widespread blackouts, concludes a report, “Reliability, Resilience and Oncoming Wave of Retiring Baseload Units,” issued last month by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

The Lab’s analysis of the PJM system found that coal generation surged from 20 gigawatts to 51 gigawatts of supplied capacity during the bomb cyclone. By contrast, nuclear power, which typically runs all out with little variability throughout the year, provided no surge capacity.

Natural gas generation averaged about 25 gigawatts, but its surge capacity was limited by pipeline constraints and the necessity of competing with gas as a home-heating fuel during the freeze. As a percentage of total output, gas actually fell. Emphasizes the report: “It was coal, and secondarily fuel oil, fired primarily in fuel switching natural gas units, that provided the electricity crucial for keeping natural gas-fired residential furnace fans operating during the extreme cold of the BC.”

And renewables? Renewable output declined. That’s what happens when clouds and snow blot out solar output. As it happened, wind power declined as well. “Intermittent generating sources experienced a significant decline nearly inverse to growth in demand,” states the report. “As the storm settled over the Mid-Atlantic area, PJM saw decreased output from solar and wind resources.”


Coal, the fuel that everyone loves to hate, saved the day. Had the coal capacity not been available, the report stated, “a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.”

Let that sink in: “Leading to system collapse.”

Should I repeat that for you?

The study authors fear for the future. They write:

The 30 GW of coal that ramped up to meet the surge in PJM load includes the units most likely to retire due to insufficient market support, given those units were not running at baseload levels before the event. As more of these units retire, the ability of the system to respond to extreme events with reliance, let alone economically, deteriorates. To maintain the resilience seen in this event, any retiring units that were dispatched during the event would have to be replaced with other resilient generation sources and their associated infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, transmission).

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me spell out what this means for energy policy in Virginia. Current regulatory policy is hostile to coal-generated electric power, and could become even more hostile if Virginia joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Powerful environmental and activist groups backed by out-of-state money want to phase out nuclear power by blocking the bid of Dominion Energy Virginia to re-license four nuclear units in the years ahead, and they want to halt the construction of any more gas-fired units. And, although it appears to be too late to do so, they opposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In effect, they want to build a grid in which in gains from energy efficiency plus increases in intermittent wind and solar power replace all coal and nuclear and account for any incremental increase in demand growth.

If we assume advances in the economics of battery storage, a renewables-heavy grid can be made to work just fine under routine circumstances. In theory, massive banks of batteries can store excess solar wind power to shift electric loads to times of the day when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Building all those batteries would be expensive, but it could be done. But it’s one thing to store enough electric power to handle daily load shifts. It’s another to build enough batteries to provide power for a 12-day storm system. It can’t be done. And when the electricity runs out, not only do the 40% of households who rely upon electricity to heat their homes start freezing, so do the households that use natural gas because there’s no electricity to run the fans and blowers.

Massive storm systems like the bomb cyclone and the Polar Vortex of several years ago occur only once every few years. But occur they do. And the energy mix of our electric grid must be built around that reality. Far from increasing resilience — the buzzword of the day — we could be laying the groundwork for self-inflicted disaster.

Bacon Bits: The Latest in Government Ineptitude and Short-Sighted Thinking

It’s Hard to Teach without Teachers. With a week to go before the start of the new school year, the Richmond Public Schools still has about 90 teacher openings, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Why the shortage, which seems to be a chronic issue? Perhaps the school conditions are so terrible that no one wants to work for the city schools. Or perhaps the school administration is dysfunctional that it can’t execute basic tasks. Whatever the case, I’ve seen no reporting to suggest that any other locality in the Richmond region has a comparable problem.

Hopewell the Next Petersburg? The City of Hopewell is now 21 months behind completing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, and that has some City Council members broiling, as reported by the T-D. One city official points to a $51.8 million in year-end cash and investments as proof that the city’s financial position is OK. But an auditor said he had uncovered about 90 instances of money being transferred without documentation — the same practice that preceded Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown.

What Hurricane Harvey Portends for Hampton Roads. Flood damage in the Houston area will run into the tens of billions of dollars. Much of the cost will be covered by an under-priced, under-funded federal flood insurance program that subsidizes construction in flood-prone areas. (Much of the balance will be covered by an under-funded federal government that will have to borrow the money.) According to Politico, about one percent of insured properties have sustained repetitive losses, accounting for more than 25 percent of the nation’s flood claims. So far, Congress has resisted serious reform, but the program is fiscally unsustainable.

Thought experiment: What would happen to Hampton Roads if federal flood insurance charged actuarially sound premiums? What would that do to property values?

A related question: Who insures infrastructure? Presumably rate payers cover the cost of maintaining electric lines. How big is that subsidy? I’m guessing that state and local governments have no insurance for roads and highways. What is that potential exposure? And how about the implicit subsidies for water and sewer service? People who choose to build and live in vulnerable locations — this now effects me, because I now am a co-owner with my brother and sister of the family beach cottage — should pay the full cost of their locational decisions.

Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Dominion to Recover $140 Million for Burying Electric Lines for Outage-Prone Customers

A screen capture from a Dominion video shows the machinery used to bury electric lines.

A screen capture from a Dominion video shows the machinery used to bury electric lines.

by James A. Bacon

The State Corporation Commission ruled earlier this week that Dominion Virginia Power can recover up to $140 million on what it has spent to bury about 400 miles of electric distribution lines. By putting the overhead tap lines of the 6,000 most outage-prone customers underground, the electric company hopes to significantly reduce time spent restoring electric power after hurricanes, ice storms and other widespread service disruptions. The benefit to improved reliability will cost customers an average of fifty cents to the monthly bill.

The General Assembly had passed enabling legislation in 2014 but the State Corporation Commission (SCC) turned down Dominion’s first proposal to bury 4,000 miles of overhead lines serving some 150,000 customers on the grounds that there was insufficient data to show a positive cost-benefit ratio. But the SCC approved the pilot program, which will apply retroactively to overhead lines that Dominion has already buried, with the expectation the Dominion will regularly provide data on outages and restoration times to use in evaluating the program.

“If we were to get the full 4,000  miles of underground line, it would cut the typical hurricane outage period of seven to ten days in half,” says spokesman David Botkins. There is no way to estimate what difference the pilot project will make until the data comes in, but he said Dominion targeted “the most outage-prone and most difficult to repair tap lines” in its service territory — “the worst of the worst.”

In granting approval, the SCC wrote, “We find that the [project] satisfied statutory requirements, and is reasonable, prudent, and in the public interest.”

Even with the kind of automated equipment shown in the photo above — Dominion will not be handing the job over to ditch diggers — the expense is considerable. The cost of $140 million spread over 6,000 customers is $23,000 per customer. Dominion’s long-term vision, covering about 150,000 customers, would cost an estimated $2 billion.

But Dominion contends that cost-per-customer is not a relevant metric. Payback will accrue to all customers when restoration is shorter following large weather events, allowing the Commonwealth to return to normalcy sooner, says Botkins. In fact, an industry expert estimates that the economic benefits of the first 400 miles of undergrounding exceeds the cost by a ratio of over 2 to 1.

Stated the SCC ruling:

Dominion should be prepared to establish, with specificity, how the [Strategic Underground Program] has resulted in demonstrated system-wide benefits, as well as documented local benefits to the neighborhoods in which distribution lines have been placed underground. The Company has the burden to collect the data necessary to measure … “whether the SUP can be a cost effective means of ensuring reliability for its entire system.”

The buried lines are scattered throughout more than 80 cities, towns, and counties in Dominion’s service territory. In a typical example, The company placed 11 miles of overhead lines to underground in King George County; 24 separate projects impacted 68 customers.

In major outages, Dominion has a hierarchy of response. First, it attends to hospitals, water pumping stations, emergency centers and other critical needs. Next it tackles major circuits where a single repair job can put a large number of customers back on line. Then the company works its way down to subdivisions with a few customers, and finally to individual houses.

“The overhead lines in the back lots are very labor intensive,” explains Botkins. “It’s hard to get the truck back in there. The crew has to do a lot of the work by hand. It’s very time consuming.”

Guarding the Grid

transmission_lineby James A. Bacon

It’s easy to spin nightmare scenarios leading to the collapse of the electric grid. North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon a mile overhead, sending out a super-charged electro-magnetic pulse that melts down transmission lines and blows out substations. The electricity overload races ahead of anyone’s ability to control it in a cascading effect that knocks out power for vast swaths of the country. Because key components of the grid take more than a year to manufacture and deliver, electric power takes interminably long to restore. The economy collapses. Millions die.

If you find that threat implausible, how about this one? A massive discharge of radiation from the sun overwhelms the earth’s magnetic field, melts down transmission lines, blows out sub-stations, and…. you know the rest. Or, this: In coordinated strikes, terrorists knock out vulnerable sub-stations, triggering the meltdown of electric lines…. Or cyber-terrorists infiltrate a utility network, overriding the power company’s controls, creating overloads and triggering a meltdown…

Such story-lines sound over-wrought, the stuff of grade B movies or pulp novels. They could never happen in real life, you say. Yet there have been enough deliberate physical and cyber attacks on a small scale, as if someone is probing the system, that many experts deem the threat to be very real. And most of us can still remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, caused by sagging electric lines coming into contact with overgrown trees, which demonstrated how a failure in one location can ripple across an entire grid. Fifty-five million people in the U.S. and Canada were effected.

The United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia have been moving in their slow, ponderous way to protect against those threats, and Garry Kranz has written an excellent article in Virginia Business magazine describing what Dominion Virginia Power and others are doing to safeguard against the disaster scenarios.

Writes Kranz:

Dominion plans to spend up to $500 million over the next five to seven years on a variety of security initiatives. The strategy is to harden its transmission substations and other critical infrastructure, add more mobile transmission equipment and boost stockpiles of backup gear. It plans to bolster perimeter security with ultramodern construction and use sophisticated technologies to pre-empt intruders. …

Dominion also is investing in increased grid reliability through the construction of a new systems operations center in Henrico County. Costing an estimated $100 million, the center will be able to perform real-time monitoring of the transmission grid to maintain electric reliability. Projected to open in 2017, the facility will replace Dominion’s current operations center at the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico, which has been around since 1992.

Another tool in the security toolbox is penetration testing.  A standard security technique for utilities and related industries, it allows companies through what is known as a “pen test” to systematically try to defeat internal security controls and procedures to pinpoint any weaknesses.

“We give penetration testers an advantage by moving them inside our network to see how far they get. Sometimes we tell our people the tests will take place, but often we don’t tell them. We want to see if our processes help them detect abnormal activity and report it,” says Engels, who does not share any improvements Dominion has made as a result.

Micro-grid technology also promises enhanced grid reliability, according to Jason Nichols, director of Scitor Corp.’s iSpace lab. Scitor is part of McLean-based defense contractor SAIC. Some military bases in Virginia already deploy micro-grids. Dominion also is funding micro-grid demonstration projects using renewable fuels at several state universities.

“If a portion of Virginia’s public grid goes down, a micro-grid gives the military base the potential to provide local generation to keep hospitals and other critical services running in some sort of degraded state,” Nichols says.

As it happens, while attending freshman orientation earlier this week at a certain unnamed university my son will be attending this year, I encountered a cyber-security professor who had just arrived for his first day on the job. He and I struck up a conversation about this very topic: cyber-security on the grid. What he told me was alarming. Speaking from his personal experience consulting with a major electric utility in the Southeast U.S. (not in Virginia), he found that the control systems cobbled different generations of technology as far back as the 1950s. Vulnerabilities were rampant. I was left with the impression that the only thing preventing infiltration by cyber-enemies was the overwhelming complexity of the chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire system that only a handful of long-time company employees even understood. Whether senior management comprehends the magnitude of these vulnerabilities is an interesting question. Continue reading

The Tradeoffs of Burying Electric Power Lines

How much is it worth to ensure faster restoration of electric service after a major storm? A lot, if it’s you. Perhaps not so much, if it’s someone else!

by James A. Bacon

Anyone who regards the State Corporation Commission as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power really isn’t paying attention. SCC commissioners have their own priorities, and they aren’t necessarily those of Dominion. An example was on display yesterday when the commission held hearings on a Dominion request to spend $140 million to bury its most vulnerable power lines so it could get customers back on line quicker after widespread outages.

The SCC had rejected an earlier Dominion proposal to spend $263 million on a plan to bury the 20% of overhead lines most responsible for outages and time lost. Dominion had argued that burying those lines would cut average electricity restoration times after major storms in half. After the SCC rebuffed that proposal, the utility came back with a scaled-back proposal to spend $140 million, adding a modest $6 per year to customers bills.

Based on their comments and questions, the commissioners did not look favorably upon it. Writes John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Commissioner Mark C. Christie said during the hearing that the utility’s calculation of the societal benefit to justify the plan is the wrong measurement since less expensive options to reduce outages — such as increased tree trimming — would have similar impact.

“The whole question about this thing is bang for the buck,” Christie said. “Certainly, you will get fewer outages when the storm comes through. But how do you know all the extra money you spent on undergrounding was more cost-effective than having more trucks out there or tree-trimming or whatever less expensive options?

“We know if you underground a line down a block, we know it’s going to benefit that block in all likelihood. Does that mean it was worth the expenditure that goes into peoples’ bills?

Dominion maintains a portfolio of a dozen different reliability programs, encompassing tree trimming, upgrading old equipment to current standards, and installing sensors to detect failing parts and prioritize investment, among others. (See “Towards a Smarter Grid.”) The company is continually fine-tuning its allocation of resources. For example, it has moved from trimming routes every three years to an approach that takes into account line voltage, how fast the trees grow and many other factors. The inability to trim trees outside of electric-line right of way, said Dominion lawyers at the hearing, places a major restriction on how aggressively the company can trim.

Bacon’s bottom line: Two points…

First: Electric reliability is part of the company’s DNA. One of the metrics Dominion uses to gauge its own performance is the speed at which it restores electricity service. Undoubtedly the SCC commissioners take reliability into account, but they appear to be more concerned at the moment with the impact of spending on rate payers. And who can blame them? Dominion, like other utilities across the country, has spent billions of dollars meeting tougher federal standards for toxic emissions, and it expects to spend billions more meeting the Clean Power Plan standards for carbon emissions. With all the concern over terrorism, cyber-attacks, electro-magnetic pulses and other threats to grid security, the company also is spending hundreds of millions on measures to harden the grid. Ultimately, citizens and businesses pay for all this. In the instance of restoring service after storms, the SCC seems to be prioritizing cost over reliability.

Second: Dominion has sought, or is seeking, SCC approval for a half dozen major electric transmission line projects that have aroused the ire of citizens concerned about the visual impact. Invariably, transmission-line foes suggest burying the line. That option has been prominently suggested for the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek line which would impact views of the James River near the historic Jamestown settlement. I am speculating here, but I’m wondering if the SCC is skeptical about the cost of burying electric lines in any context, not just for ensuring reliability.

In terms of pure self interest, Dominion has no reason to object to burying distribution and transmission lines — as long as the SCC allows it to recover its costs. If Dominion balks at burying lines, it’s because the executives who deal with the SCC daily and know the minds of regulators anticipate a tough sell before the commission. It may be hard for people to wrap their mind’s around this, but the SCC is boss and Dominion is the supplicant.

Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech has been re-thinking for a several years now how to invigorate traditional engineering disciplines by integrating civil engineering and computer engineering to create “smart infrastructure.” The $100 million initiative received a $5 million boost yesterday from the Hitt family, owners of Falls Church-based Hitt Contraction, a company that typically recruits eight to ten Virginia Tech graduates every year, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The Tech initiative is incredibly timely. In arguably the biggest revolution since the invention of structural steel that made possible the construction of new classes of bridges and skyscrapers in the 1930s, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is introducing radical change to the construction industry. The IoT is a catch phrase for the integration of ubiquitous sensors into buildings and structures that generate data that can be used to improve performance.

An in-house Virginia Tech article made note last year of Virginia Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure Laboratory,” which includes smart building technology that, among other things, can guide occupants to safety during disasters, and its Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team, which works at the intersection of engineering materials and systems to advance structural safety, resiliency and durability.

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall … is known as the world’s most-instrumented building for measurement of vibrations. Measuring motion and vibration inside and outside the walls, 212 accelerometers can detect even the slightest movement. The sensors feed data into data acquisition boxes via 65,000 feet of cable interconnecting the entire system. Data can be used to save energy costs, guide maintenance crews, or deploy first responders in an emergency.

The Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team has a measurement and visualization system that can generate 3-D representations of any object or environment over time. These models can identify gradual changes such as a gusset plate buckling in a bridge or cracks in a building after an earthquake. The system has been used to measure deformations in a steel plate wall and in the field to identify cracks in a concrete bridge over the James River.

Virginia Tech will start work in January on “Hitt Hall” for smart construction and another unnamed building for intelligent design. Meanwhile, Tech is expanding and linking its smart road partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), its smart city partnership with Arlington County, and a 300-acre “smart neighborhood” to serve as a proving ground for new technologies.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the built environment — everything from buildings to roads and bridges, from waste water systems to electric grids. The cost of sensors is plummeting, and so is the cost of transmitting data to the Cloud. The idea of “smart” bridges and “smart” buildings is not hype — it’s real. It’s here. And leading construction companies like Hitt are building teams that can pull all the pieces together. Tech is wisely making the program multidisciplinary, opening it up to engineers, business majors and students in other study areas, reports the WBJ, “as the lines between technology, infrastructure and business continue to blur.”

I can’t believe that Virginia Tech is the only university exploiting this opportunity — I don’t track what other institutions are doing — but at the very least it deserves kudos for being an early mover. Hopefully, Virginia-based companies like Hitt Construction will tap graduates with the new skill sets to gain a competitive economic advantage in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Virginia political and government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art work at Virginia Tech and start thinking creatively how to apply the Internet of Things to Virginia’s own infrastructure. The potential maintenance savings from the application of smart technologies to government-owned buildings, utilities and transportation infrastructure is immense. The potential to optimize transportation systems, conserve energy and reduce man’s impact on the environment is transformative. VDOT and Arlington County are ahead of the curve. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

Turning Sea Level Rise into a Competitive Economic Advantage

Routine flooding -- not just for Mississippi River towns anymore.

Recurrent flooding in Hampton Roads

by James A. Bacon

To hear Henry R. “Speaker” Pollard describe all the economic risks associated with rising sea levels in Hampton Roads — soaring insurance rates, higher financing costs, declining property values, disruption to business — one might be forgiven for wondering why any business would ever want to consider investing there. “It’s easy to get caught up in a gloom-and- doom perspective,” he says.

But Pollard draws a counter-intuitive conclusion: If business and government respond by moving up the learning curve on how to manage the risk, rising sea levels could provide a positive stimulus to the low-lying, flood-prone region. Speaking to an audience at the 2016 Resilient Virginia Conference, he said, “In the end Hampton Roads can achieve a competitive economic advantage compared to other coastal communities.”

Pollard’s optimism was echoed by other speakers at the conference, who described how Norfolk and Virginia Beach, among others, are grappling with the challenge of coping with sea levels that could rise two feet by 2100, if the historic rate prevails, or as much as eight feet, if more pessimistic global warming scenarios pan out.

Christine Morris, chief resilience officer for Norfolk, says her goal is to “marry the city to innovation.” By leading the way in devising positive responses to flooding and inundation, Norfolk can become a test bed for new technologies, solutions and urban designs. She foresees the city brokering knowledge, incubating new businesses and attracting companies that want to get in on the ground floor.

Rising sea levels pose several problems for Hampton Roads, some obvious and some less obvious, said Pollard, who is an environmental attorney with Williams Mullen. Inhabitants endure frequent road blockages during hard flooding, and the frequency of disruptions has increased markedly from decade to decade. Shoreline property owners are combating erosion, storm damage and sky-high insurance rates. Manufacturers worry about the ability of employees to make it to work during extreme-weather events and the ability to ship goods out of the region on a timely basis.

Less visible to the public, municipal and industrial water treatment facilities could find it more difficult to discharge treated wastewater when storm waters run high, said Pollard. Also the flooding of industrial property could flush out surface contamination and spread toxic pollutants. The retreat of wetlands could cause the loss of nursing grounds for fisheries.

Conceptually, there are three broad approaches to dealing with sea level rise: protect assets with hard infrastructure like walls and jetties; buffer the impact of storm surges with green infrastructure such as wetlands and oyster reefs; or retreat from the rising tide by limiting development and infrastructure.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty. We need to accept that — you never have perfect data,” said Pollard. Accordingly, there is no way to know which sea level scenario will occur. A slower pace of sea-level rise gives the region decades to prepare; a rapid rate calls out for more dramatic action.

Either way, he said, “there are opportunities out there.” He expects private lenders and insurers to play a major role in evaluating the risk. Companies devising successful approaches in Hampton Roads can apply their expertise in coastal communities around the world. He expects to see new real estate development strategies such as the re-purposing of industrial brownfields, and new financing strategies like public-private partnerships. Green infrastructure could give rise to new technologies, products and business opportunities.

Speaking from a planning perspective, Morris said she expects to see an evolution in the urban form to encourage denser development on the one hand and more “green and blue” — flood plains used for parks, ballfields and open space that suffer little loss in value when flooded. A key goal of Norfolk’s Coastal Resilience Strategy, she said, is to design “the coastal community of the future.”

Brian Batten, an engineering consultant to Virginia Beach, advocated matching capital investments to expected sea level rise over comparable time horizons — 1 1/2 feet of sea level rise over 20 to 40 years, and 3 feet over 50 to 80 years. Moody’s, the bond rating firm, is asking local governments how they are dealing with sea level rise. Sound planning can lead to superior bond ratings, he said, noting that Virginia Beach, which is thinking about these issues, had its AAA bond rating confirmed recently.

“If we do it well,” Pollard said, “we could come out better.”

Making NIT More Productive, More Resilient

NIT

Norfolk International Terminal (NIT)

by James A. Bacon

For the millions of Virginians living above the fall line, the struggle that Hampton Roads has with rising sea levels and increasing flooding may seem remote and far away. Why should we care? After all, does anybody in Hampton Roads give a hoot about our problems?

Kit Chope, vice president of sustainability for the Virginia Port Authority, gave a pretty darn good reason this morning for why Virginians across the Commonwealth should take an interest in the region’s increasing vulnerability to storm surges and flooding: Anything that disrupts port operations disrupts the economy of the state. Some 530,000 jobs and 10% of the state’s gross domestic product are tied to port activities, he said.

“What affects the port affects the state,” said Chope in a panel discussion of the 2016 Resilient Virginia Conference, during which a major theme was the long-term threat that sea level rise and flooding poses to Hampton Roads.

Upstream Virginia has gotten the message. Included in the $2 billion bond package approved by the General Assembly in the 2016 session is $350 million to upgrade cargo-handling cranes at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT). The capital investment has been billed primarily as a response to growing cargo traffic and the need to expand capacity. But there’s more to it than that, said Chope. Modernization also will provide more protection from hurricane storm surges that could inundate the facility and knock it out of operation.

The Port of New York and New Jersey, the third largest port in the country, got a taste of what could go wrong during superstorm Sandy. A nine-foot storm surge inundated the portsm washing hazmat materials and other debris into the water channels and rendering electrical power unreliable. Flooded terminals closed for a week, leading to the diversion of 25,000 shipping containers and 58 vessels (some to Hampton Roads). Another 15,000 containers were lost, along with 9,000 automobiles and 4,500 trucks and vehicles.

The ports of Virginia, the nation’s fifth largest port complex, are determined to avoid a similar capacity, Chope said.

Thanks to the bond package, new electricity-powered, rail-mounted gantries will replace the existing diesel-powered straddle cranes. The investment will make possible a 50% increase in the number of containers to be loaded and unloaded. Getting less attention is the fact that the Virginia Port Authority is studying how to protect the terminal from disruption. “Where are we most at risk? Where are our critical nodes? What are the potential points of failure?”

For example, electric vaults at ground level will be elevated above projected storm surge levels. Buildings will be hardened to protect IT systems used to track cargo and communicate with shippers. “Data is king,” Chope said. It must be protected.

The VPA’s resilience efforts have been internally focused mostly, but the port relies upon utilities, especially electricity, and is inextricably tied to the network of railroads, highways and local roads that link the terminals to major markets. If local roads flood, as they are prone to do in the City of Norfolk, that could hinder trucks driving in and out with containers. Everything is interconnected. “What’s good for the city is good for the port,” he said. “What’s good for the port is good for the state.”

A Humble Proposal for Addressing Recurrent Flooding

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

By James A. Bacon

The recurrence of tidal/surge flooding in Hampton Roads has increased from 1.7 days of “nuisance” flooding yearly in 1960 to 7.3 days in 2o14, and with continued land subsidence and sea-level rise, the flooding will become even more common. So say the authors of “Building Resiliency in Response to Sea Level Rise and Recurrent Flooding: Comprehensive Planning in Hampton Roads,” published in the January 2016 issue of the Virginia News Letter.

Of all the region’s localities, according to the paper, the City of Portsmouth has moved the fastest to incorporate adaptive strategies into its comprehensive planning. The low-lying city of about 100,000 citizens is extremely vulnerable, with 38% of households lying within AE Flood Zones and approximately 50 miles of roadway located less than 4.5 feet above mean high water.

Last year the city interviewed nearly 2,000 households to ask about the frequency of flooding, flood-related loss, risk perception and mitigation behavior. Nearly half the residents surveyed reported being unable to get in or our of their neighborhoods in the past year due to flooding; more than a quarter reported being unable to get to work. More than 18% report suffering some form of damage to vehicles.

“There is strong perception among residents that future economic opportunities will be curtailed by changing sea levels; this view is even more strongly held by residents who experience difficulty getting in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood,” the authors write. “About 30 percent of residents agree that flooding specifically has negatively impacted the value of their homes.”

The authors are less clear about what can be done. They allude to three broad strategies for dealing with flooding: retreat, protection and accommodation. Retreat might entail restricting development in low-lying areas. Protection might include sea walls, living shorelines, improvement storm water drains, better street drainage or ditch maintenance. Accommodation might mean accepting inconvenience, disruption and property loss as the “new normal.” But the paper provides little guidance as to when and where these strategies might be appropriate or how they might be paid for.

Bacon’s bottom line: The authors note that households can adapt by installing pumps and drains, relocating HVA systems or buying higher-riding automobiles. But, other than relocating their residences to higher land, there doesn’t seem much else that individual households can do to protect themselves. Some kind of collective action is necessary.

Here’s the problem: In some areas, improvements will be too costly. In others, the real estate is of such low value, it’s not worth saving even at modest cost. But if local governments spend money on one neighborhood, every other neighborhood in the political jurisdiction will want their piece of the pie. And why not? Their residents pay taxes, too.

hot_spots

Flooding hot spots in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter.

Here’s an idea I throw out for discussion: Create community development authorities that encompass those areas (such as the yellow-red islands shown in map of Portsmouth to the right) that are most prone to flooding. A flood-mitigation plan is developed for each district, with improvements to be paid for with taxes raised from property owners in that district. Then put it to a vote of the residents of the district. Let those closest to the situation weigh the costs (a higher tax) versus the benefits (less property damage, flood-free streets, etc.) and decide for themselves.

The result would be a public-improvement plan more tightly aligned with the local circumstances and less vulnerable to political log-rolling than anything a city-wide effort could pull off and far easier to sell politically.

Fuzzy Thinking at the Top

Woolly headed

Woolly headed

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe views the implementation of the Clean Power Plan as a great opportunity for Virginia to create “green” jobs in solar energy and energy-efficiency while also reducing carbon emissions and head off global warming. “I am working hard with Virginia businesses and environmental leaders to seize this moment to lead for our planet and for our economy,” he wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

That’s a fine sentiment. Virginia does need to create more jobs. And McAuliffe correctly perceives that the commonwealth faces momentous decisions regarding its electric system. But there was so much platitudinous thinking in the op-ed that I found it thoroughly discouraging. At the highest level of Virginia government, banalities have replaced substantive thought. Let’s take a look at some of the assaults on reason in the piece.

Job creation. Yes, if Virginia builds more solar plants, installs more solar panels on roofs, and builds more wind-powered turbines, it will create jobs related to the construction and operation of wind and solar power. However, the State Corporation Commission staff said last year that implementing the Clean Power Plan could drive electric rates 20% higher. Higher electric rates would discourage industrial development and take money out of the pockets of business and residential customers, all of which would result in job destruction. The difference is that the new energy jobs would be highly visible while the lost jobs, distributed in dribs and drabs across economy, would be largely invisible. Which effect would outweigh the other? Nobody knows, and anyone who pretends to is just making stuff up.

Environmentalists claim that, if implemented properly, the Clean Power Plan would nudge rates only a little higher, and ratepayers would save enough money through energy conservation that their bills actually would be a little lower than today. Perhaps that’s so. It certainly would be a much more desirable income than a 20% increase in electricity rates. So… let’s see the plan! What combination of programs and strategies will lead to this ideal outcome? How would the McAuliffe administration propose implementing the Clean Power Plan differently than the SCC would, while taking care to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, to avoid that 20% rate increase?

There was no hint in McAuliffe’s op-ed that such hard-nose thinking is even necessary. Chanting, “Rah, rah, green jobs,” is not a plan.

Norfolk flooding. If I hear one more invocation of rising sea levels and increased flooding in Norfolk as justification for spending billions of dollars overhauling Virginia’s energy infrastructure, I think my brain will explode. Here’s what the governor had to say on the subject:

Even before the hurricane headed toward Virginia’s coast, the city of Norfolk was bracing for a greater number of nuisance flooding days over the next year due to higher sea levels and more frequent storm surges. Because Norfolk houses the largest U.S. naval station in the world, this is also an issue of national security.

The Clean Power Plan is recognition of the need for action.

This logic is so woolly headed that if we could shave it, we could put the world’s sheep farmers out of business. The increasing incidence of flooding is a justification for building flood walls, hardening infrastructure, upgrading building codes, eliminating subsidies for flood insurance and reforming land use — not for restructuring Virginia’s electric grid.

The reality is that anything Virginia does to re-engineer its electric grid to reduce CO2 emissions will have an impact on global warming and rising sea levels too small to measure. According to estimates using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s MAGICC/SCENGEN climate model, the Clean Power Plan will reduce global temperatures about one-one hundredth of a degree (Centigrade) by the year 2100. Virginia’s implementation would account for roughly 1/40th that amount (based on its proportion of the U.S. GDP). To suggest that Virginia, by reducing global temperatures by 1/4,000th of a degree Centigrade, will slow the rate of rising sea levels enough to reduce the impact upon Norfolk is fantasy thinking.

As it happens, there is an argument for implementing the Clean Power Plan: By making the investment, the U.S. can thereby exercise the moral leadership to induce other countries, particularly China, India, to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. You can choose to accept that argument or not based upon your own partisan and ideological inclinations. But that’s not the argument that McAuliffe offers for supporting the plan.

The future grid. The Obama administration is imposing the Clean Power Plan upon America at a time when the electric power industry is in extraordinary flux, with new technologies and business models threatening to up-end the regulatory structure that has prevailed over the past 80 or so years. The pace of change, and the uncertainty it brings, is unprecedented during the era of regulated utilities. New technologies show enormous promise for replacing fossil fuels. At the same time, given the inherently intermittent nature of those power sources, there are many issues to work out for ensuring the reliability of the electric system, upon which our entire civilization is built. There is little room for error.

There are many profound questions to ponder. Should we invest in large nuclear- and gas-powered power plants with 40-year life spans when solar technology might produce electric power more cheaply within a 5- to 10-year time frame? Should we invest in the current generation of renewable fuels today when the next generation could well cost far less? In either case, we risk saddling Virginia’s electric power system with antiquated and uneconomic capacity. Do we want a big-is-better power system built around large power plants and a robust transmission system, or do we prefer a decentralized, small-is-beautiful approach that may not be as efficient but could be less vulnerable to catastrophic failure? What trade-offs are we willing to make between cost, reliability and the environment?

What path would McAuliffe urge us to take? We don’t know. The Governor offers no clue in his op-ed. Indeed, there are no simple answers to these questions. One way or the other, either we decide what future we want, or we will have a future thrust upon us.

It's the Buzzard Talking

Buzzards on a power line -- no telling what might case an outage.

Buzzards on a power line — no telling what might cause an outage.

If you want to understand why Dominion Virginia Power does what it does, visit the Henrico County operations center where the company manages 6,400 miles of electric transmission line.

by James A. Bacon

Electric power companies have spent tens of billions of dollars hardening their electric transmission grids and building redundant systems to guard against the varied threats that nature, mankind and animals throw against them. Tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms pose a frequent danger. Then there are the ditch diggers who cut underground lines, the loggers who drop trees onto above-ground lines and the barges that run into river-spanning towers.

And let’s not forget the vultures. There have been documented instances of large birds knocking out power lines. A buzzard perched on a power line in a sub-station might take flight, releasing what Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning for Dominion Virginia Power, politely refers to as a “streamer.” The material creates a connection between a conductor and a tower, and kaboom! Says Curtis: “It’s not uncommon on a landfill [near a power station] to find a dead buzzard on the ground.”

It’s Curtis’ job to preserve the reliability of Dominion’s electric grid, which serves roughly five million Virginians and a not inconsiderable number of North Carolinians in the face of fluctuating temperatures, power surges, foreseeable threats like storms and hurricanes, and crazy stuff like an uncontrolled emission of buzzard poop that no one can predict.

The good news is that the electric grid is more robust than it was on August 14, 2003, around 2 p.m., when a high voltage power line in northern Ohio became overloaded, heated up, drooped, brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down. The voltage in the system found alternate routes and overloaded new lines, three of which shut off. A cascade of failures ripped through southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. Fifty million people lost power for up to two days in the worst blackout in North American history.

As disruptive as the infamous 2003 Northeast Blackout was for electricity customers — it contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion — it was traumatic for the electric power industry, which has since re-engineered the North American grid to ensure, hopefully, that nothing similar happens again.

The bad news is that new threats to the grid, what some have called the world’s largest and most complex machine, are emerging: an electro-magnetic pulse from nuclear weapon, cyber-attacks, terrorist sabotage and, more prosaically, a re-structuring of the grid for environmental purposes that entails shuttering stable, reliable coal-fired power plants and plugging in intermittent power sources such as solar and wind power. The utility has a host of critics who maintain that it’s moving too slowly on reducing CO2 emissions, it’s too stodgy about implementing new smart grid technology, it’s insensitive to landowner rights, its transmission lines are blasting through Virginia’s cultural heritage. And they all have a point. But, then, it’s not the critics’ job to keep the lights on. It’s Dominion’s. And the stakes are very high.

As part of my coverage of energy and environmental issues (sponsored by Dominion), I determined that I needed to learn a lot more about how the electric grid works — not the distribution lines that run through our neighborhoods but the backbone of the system, the high-voltage transmission lines that transport electricity from power plants to sub-stations where the voltage is stepped down to levels for transfer to the distribution lines. I asked David Botkins, director of media relations, for a tour of the Dominion Operation Center in Henrico County. Not only did he agree, he lined up Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning, as the tour guide.

The operation center in Innsbrook takes security seriously. Visitors are not allowed admittance to the main operations room itself but to a viewing room, with movie theater-style seating, a locked door and a retractable screen that is kept closed except for scheduled viewings. No photography was allowed. I was only the third journalist granted admittance to the viewing room in 11 years. The others were a reporter from NPR and a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or whether the subject was just so esoteric that most journalists never think to ask.

The viewing room opens onto a much larger room — the brain of Dominion’s electric grid — with about a half dozen work stations and a massive wall board. The wall schematic displays the 6,400 lines of transmission line in the Dominion system: 500 kv lines in green, 230 kv lines in blue, and 115 kv lines in red. Bulbs light up at critical junctures like power plants, sub-stations and other important nodes to indicate an “abnormal” condition.

In Curtis’ ideal world, the board is blank — no lights. That means everything is functioning entirely normally. (Ironically, everything being normal would be an abnormal situation; there is always something going on.) A light is not necessarily a cause for alarm: Often it simply means that a facility is down for planned maintenance, as was the case for a Pentagon City substation that lit up like a Christmas tree the morning I visited. But every light makes the job of keeping the grid stable just a little more complicated.

Dominion runs a computer program every three minutes to check for trouble in the system. As a double check, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part, also runs a computer program. There is zero tolerance for allowing a situation that might lead to a melt-down. The standard set by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) is to keep at least “two contingencies” away from a crisis. In other words, the system must maintain enough redundancy to accommodate two unplanned outages in extreme conditions. All it takes to shed load, says Curtis, is “a one in a million chance of a breakdown.” Continue reading

It’s the Buzzard Talking

Buzzards on a power line -- no telling what might case an outage.

Buzzards on a power line — no telling what might cause an outage.

If you want to understand why Dominion Virginia Power does what it does, visit the Henrico County operations center where the company manages 6,400 miles of electric transmission line.

by James A. Bacon

Electric power companies have spent tens of billions of dollars hardening their electric transmission grids and building redundant systems to guard against the varied threats that nature, mankind and animals throw against them. Tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms pose a frequent danger. Then there are the ditch diggers who cut underground lines, the loggers who drop trees onto above-ground lines and the barges that run into river-spanning towers.

And let’s not forget the vultures. There have been documented instances of large birds knocking out power lines. A buzzard perched on a power line in a sub-station might take flight, releasing what Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning for Dominion Virginia Power, politely refers to as a “streamer.” The material creates a connection between a conductor and a tower, and kaboom! Says Curtis: “It’s not uncommon on a landfill [near a power station] to find a dead buzzard on the ground.”

It’s Curtis’ job to preserve the reliability of Dominion’s electric grid, which serves roughly five million Virginians and a not inconsiderable number of North Carolinians in the face of fluctuating temperatures, power surges, foreseeable threats like storms and hurricanes, and crazy stuff like an uncontrolled emission of buzzard poop that no one can predict.

The good news is that the electric grid is more robust than it was on August 14, 2003, around 2 p.m., when a high voltage power line in northern Ohio became overloaded, heated up, drooped, brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down. The voltage in the system found alternate routes and overloaded new lines, three of which shut off. A cascade of failures ripped through southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. Fifty million people lost power for up to two days in the worst blackout in North American history.

As disruptive as the infamous 2003 Northeast Blackout was for electricity customers — it contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion — it was traumatic for the electric power industry, which has since re-engineered the North American grid to ensure, hopefully, that nothing similar happens again.

The bad news is that new threats to the grid, what some have called the world’s largest and most complex machine, are emerging: an electro-magnetic pulse from nuclear weapon, cyber-attacks, terrorist sabotage and, more prosaically, a re-structuring of the grid for environmental purposes that entails shuttering stable, reliable coal-fired power plants and plugging in intermittent power sources such as solar and wind power. The utility has a host of critics who maintain that it’s moving too slowly on reducing CO2 emissions, it’s too stodgy about implementing new smart grid technology, it’s insensitive to landowner rights, its transmission lines are blasting through Virginia’s cultural heritage. And they all have a point. But, then, it’s not the critics’ job to keep the lights on. It’s Dominion’s. And the stakes are very high.

As part of my coverage of energy and environmental issues (sponsored by Dominion), I determined that I needed to learn a lot more about how the electric grid works — not the distribution lines that run through our neighborhoods but the backbone of the system, the high-voltage transmission lines that transport electricity from power plants to sub-stations where the voltage is stepped down to levels for transfer to the distribution lines. I asked David Botkins, director of media relations, for a tour of the Dominion Operation Center in Henrico County. Not only did he agree, he lined up Kevin Curtis, director of transmission planning, as the tour guide.

The operation center in Innsbrook takes security seriously. Visitors are not allowed admittance to the main operations room itself but to a viewing room, with movie theater-style seating, a locked door and a retractable screen that is kept closed except for scheduled viewings. No photography was allowed. I was only the third journalist granted admittance to the viewing room in 11 years. The others were a reporter from NPR and a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or whether the subject was just so esoteric that most journalists never think to ask.

The viewing room opens onto a much larger room — the brain of Dominion’s electric grid — with about a half dozen work stations and a massive wall board. The wall schematic displays the 6,400 lines of transmission line in the Dominion system: 500 kv lines in green, 230 kv lines in blue, and 115 kv lines in red. Bulbs light up at critical junctures like power plants, sub-stations and other important nodes to indicate an “abnormal” condition.

In Curtis’ ideal world, the board is blank — no lights. That means everything is functioning entirely normally. (Ironically, everything being normal would be an abnormal situation; there is always something going on.) A light is not necessarily a cause for alarm: Often it simply means that a facility is down for planned maintenance, as was the case for a Pentagon City substation that lit up like a Christmas tree the morning I visited. But every light makes the job of keeping the grid stable just a little more complicated.

Dominion runs a computer program every three minutes to check for trouble in the system. As a double check, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part, also runs a computer program. There is zero tolerance for allowing a situation that might lead to a melt-down. The standard set by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) is to keep at least “two contingencies” away from a crisis. In other words, the system must maintain enough redundancy to accommodate two unplanned outages in extreme conditions. All it takes to shed load, says Curtis, is “a one in a million chance of a breakdown.” Continue reading