Since 1999, Dominion has purchased more than 60 power transformers like this 500  kv unit from Smit Transformers.
Since 1999, Dominion has purchased more than 60 power transformers like this 500 kv unit from Smit Transformers.

by James A. Bacon

Without electricity, contemporary American civilization collapses. We depend upon electricity to operate the pumps that supply our water, to run the refrigerators that preserve our food and to power the economy by which we earn a living. That’s why, I believe, Dominion Virginia Power will have no trouble winning regulatory approval to spend as much as a half billion dollars strengthening its transmission grid in Virginia over the next five to ten years.

The company maintains more than 400 electrical substations on 6,400 miles of high-voltage power transmission lines. The utility intends to bolster the security around vulnerable substations, create a new, hardened operations center and bolster its spare equipment inventory, reports Peter Bacque with the Times-Dispatch.

The electric power industry has long worried about the vulnerability of the national power grid to disruption, whether by a thermonuclear pulse, cyber-sabotage or terrorists. The terrorist scenario suddenly looms large since revelations last week of an attack that knocked out a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission substation near San Jose, Calif. last year. The power company was able to prevent devastating disruptions by rerouting electric power around the station, but security experts warn that coordinated attacks on multiple targets could cause cascading blackouts that could plunge much of the country into darkness.

We need to build resilience into our electric grid. In the short term, that means hardening the system against attacks, building inventories of critical parts that take weeks or more to replace (like the transformer pictured above) and taking the other measures proposed by Dominion. As the California attack showed, the concerns are not theoretical. The threat is real. We have no time to waste. Failure to act would be the height of irresponsibility.

In the longer run, we must recognize that this hardening of the existing infrastructure is only a partial solution. We need ask whether the existing structure best serves the public’s needs. Should we consider creating a “smart grid” that deploys digital technologies to sense faults in the system and allow for self-healing without manual intervention? (Does Dominion have such capabilities already — I don’t know.) Should we redesign the grid for bi-directional energy flow, which creates far more flexibility than the one-way flows that prevail today? Should we create mechanisms by which customers large and small can, under voluntary agreement, shed electric loads to reduce the strain on a damaged system?

More fundamentally, we need to ask: Which provides more resilience — a centralized system organized around large power generating facilities in remote areas linked by large transmission facilities…. or a decentralized system that encompasses numerous independent producers drawing upon solar, wind, co-generation and other energy sources?

I don’t pretend to know the answers. But we need to ask the questions. We live in a insanely complex, interconnected world in which chaos theory applies and black swan events appear seemingly from nowhere — a butterfly flaps its wings in Borneo and the power grid collapses in Virginia. Maintaining the integrity of the electric grid is a matter of life and death. It is, quite literally, the most significant public safety issue we face.

While I respect Dominion’s engineering prowess and appreciate its commitment to the public welfare, we need other voices in this discussion. Dominion is going to advocate a system that safeguards the public welfare on terms that are most advantageous to Dominion. That’s not good enough. First we decide what’s best for Virginia. Only then do we decide what’s fair and reasonable for Dominion and Virginia’s other regulated utilities.

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9 responses to “Dominion to Upgrade Security of Electric Grid”

  1. Breckinridge Avatar

    Agreed. This expense/investment will probably be approved and we will all have to pay our share over time through our monthly bills. This is Dominion operating by the rules.

    In contrast, legislation working its way through the General Assembly will bypass the regulatory process and the methods of payment spelled out in state law and SCC precedents. With no press release and with no need to go to the SCC, Dominion is asking friendly legislators to allow it to collect $420 million now for North Anna 3, a plant it may never build and a plant that should not be paid for at least until construction begins (normally it wouldn’t show up in bills until after the power begins to flow. Paying now, in a lump sum, will have certain accounting impacts on the 2015 rate case. Guess what — it will probably mean no rate rebates to customers.

  2. excellent subject and done well by a person with proper writing skills!

    here’s the question – do you want a centralized grid or a decentralized grid?

    a “proper” grid would detect local conditions and adapt… but the way we currently operate we can’t do that; for instance, if we have solar/wind feeding power into the grid – and the sun/wind go away – it causes problems even if there is a natural gas powerplant near by – it can’t come online or ramp up without a central operator doing it.

    Our grid works like a home furnace without a thermostat and you have to keep turning it up or down every time you need more or less heat.

    but as I said earlier – we’ve reached a low point in citizens faith in our institutions including corporate and govt ones and if Obama advocated upgrading the grid – by adding additional costs to our home electric bills – all hell would break loose from the right-wing Tasmanian devils who would accuse him of engaging in some kind of nefarious plot to “punish” people.

    I’m not kidding.. things have gotten that bad.

    Even if Dominion proposed such a thing – a similar group would scream bloody murder about Dominion trying to fatten their profits and pay their corporate leaders even more money they don’t deserve.

    I think the idea that our GRID is obsolete and needs to be modernized is a “duh” idea.. but we’ve become so divided as a country and so suspicious and cynical about “big” government and “rent-seeking corporate cronyism” and all that rot – that we’re essentially paralyzed.

  3. We are no longer allowed to collect taxes to repair, expand or improve our infrastructure. No more taxes! screw the lying, corrupt government!

    screw the rent seeking crony capitalists like Dominion and if McAuliffe even twitches about about higher electricity bills to pay to upgrade the grid – IMPEACH HIM!

    the absolute last thing we want to do is to give Obama credit for putting people back to work by upgrading our grid infrastructure, or improving the economy. Obama is a socialist who thinks government can help people!

    IMPEACH OBAMA for making up his own laws and covering up Benghazi and the IRS scandal while we’re at it!

    No can do Ombre. We need to water the tree of Liberty… and put more Ted Cruz types in the Senate!

    we have an obsolete grid that needs to be fixed..??? the heck you say!


  4. on a more serious note with less parody, here is Dominions looming problem:

    ” Utilities Want Regulatory Rescue From ‘Death Spiral’

    Electric utilities want regulators to allow pricing changes that will save the industry from what Wall Street has dubbed a “death spiral” spun by rooftop solar.

    Utilities need pricing structures that will compensate them for the value of the grid they maintain, even as solar liberates customers from some reliance on the grid, panelists told about 60 people at a Monday night forum sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Booth Energy Network. It’s an issue between regulators, one panelist said, and the regulated.

    “You have to come up with a regulatory model that ensures you’re going to be able to preserve the integrity of the system,” said Ross Hemphill, the vice president of regulatory policy and strategy for ComEd, an Exelon company.

    The utility industry has been abuzz with the term death spiral since Liam Denning used it in a Dec. 22 Wall Street Journal article:

    The death-spiral thesis runs thusly. Subsidies and falling technology costs are making distributed solar power—panels on roofs, essentially—cost-competitive with retail electricity prices in places like the southwestern U.S. As more people switch to solar, utilities sell less electricity to those customers, especially as they often have the right to sell surplus power from their panels back to the utility.

    The result: Utilities must spread their high fixed costs for things like repairing the grid over fewer kilowatt-hours, making solar power even more competitive and pushing more people to adopt it in a vicious circle.

    Utilities like ComEd have high fixed costs for maintaining a grid that was designed to deliver power from a few sources to many customers. Hemphill estimates that more than 90 percent of utilities’ costs are fixed, but only about 35 percent of revenues are fixed.

    Those unfixed revenues look vulnerable in the face of tremendous growth in solar energy.

    “What you have to be concerned about is a situation where you have such a high proportion of fixed costs being recovered through a volumetric rate, and then you have fast growth of a technology that starts pulling kilowatt hours off the grid,” Hemphill said. “And then you have this problem of just where are you going to be able to recover that?”

    Under current pricing regulations, utilities recover it from those who continue to draw power from the grid. That encourages even more of them to install solar—if they can afford it. Which means grid costs may be concentrating among those who can’t afford to install solar.

    “You actually could find yourself where you’ve got an inequity across income levels,” Hemphill said.

    The current pricing system worked fine when energy flowed in one direction, the panelists said. But as costumers began to produce power, many states required utilities to pay them for it, and those net-metering regulations may also undervalue the grid.

    Even customers who produce their own solar power will need the grid either for rainy days or to sell their surplus—at least until cheap energy storage becomes viable.

    “I don’t see very soon a situation where it’s going to be a regular occurrence that a customer’s going to be able to disconnect entirely,” Hemphill said. “It’s going to be more like finding a way to generate some of your own electricity but you’re still going to need that grid as more of a backup. And there’s technologies where you can be a producer, so you need the grid to be able to sell that out on the market as well.”

    Industrial customers have produced their own power for decades, said Casey Herman, a specialist in the power sector with PricewaterhouseCoopers, but they still rely on the grid in ways that may not be reflected in pricing regulations.

    “I’ve never seen companies disconnect from the grid. The variability of their needs, the variability of their own supply is too great,” Herman said.

    indeed – this sounds very similar to the problem we’re having with fuel tax revenues for transportation.

    technology brings changes.. disruptive technology accelerates and forces changes – and long-standing institutions have to change or else.

    but the thing is – when it comes to transportation and electricity – unlike companies like Kodak and Blackberry – we cannot afford for transportation or electricity to “go broke”.

    which I find a bit ironic.

    we have much more efficient cars and homes and yet in both cases there are fixed costs that if we don’t allocate them equally and allow some to evade their share of costs – will … actually degrade and destroy the infrastructure we all depend on.

    and… if we want to actually make our grid more efficient and more cost effective to benefit all of us – … we’re all going to have to pay more – at least initially ….

    but selling this idea to the populace in this day and time of political rancor is a tall order (but not impossible – given how a very conservative Va GA – did indeed make significant changes to the
    way we tax gasoline!)

  5. cpzilliacus Avatar

    James A. Bacon wrote:

    Without electricity, contemporary American civilization collapses. We depend upon electricity to operate the pumps that supply our water, to run the refrigerators that preserve our food and to power the economy by which we earn a living. That’s why, I believe, Dominion Virginia Power will have no trouble winning regulatory approval to spend as much as a half billion dollars strengthening its transmission grid in Virginia over the next five to ten years.

    Good. But.

    It’s not enough to for Dominion Virginia Power (DVP, or as I still want to call it, VEPCO) to upgrade its transmission infrastructure. As big as Virginia (and the DVP service area) are, this is an issue that impacts nearly everyone on the Eastern Interconnection (most of the U.S. and Canada east of the Rockies) and that part of the Eastern Interconnection that is on the PJM Interconnection (of which DVP and its neighbors to the north and west are a part of). All of those utility companies need to “harden” their transmission (and distribution) infrastructure to reduce the impact of storms (including solar storms) and human interference.

    This winter season, DVP is finishing the replacement of a 500,000 volt transmission line that runs from its huge coal-fired generating station at Mount Storm, Grant County, W.Va. to a substation at Doubs, Frederick County, Md. From there, power is sent to utility customers in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and other places on the PJM grid.

    There are probably more such projects that need to be done, even if some people and groups complain – for the reasons cited by Jim above.

    1. Point well taken. Every power company needs to harden/rethink its electric transmission infrastructure. Follow-up articles in the Wall Street Journal indicate that Dominion is not alone — several are moving ahead with such initiatives. Of course, nothing can be accomplished here in Virginia unless the State Corporation Commission gets on board.

  6. This is actually an example of why we have a FEDERAL government because this is an issue that transcends States and having one state-based utility address it while others do not or other address it in ways that are uncoordinated or even incompatible with each other’s approach would not be effective.. probably would not work.

    this is similar in some respects why there is a need for a Federal Govt to coordinate/allocate radio frequencies.

    Is this really a Dominion Power rate-payer issue or is it a Federal govt tax excise tax issue?

    and of course – would this be something that Conservatives/Republicans could initiate to demonstrate that they do care about govt functioning for the benefit of citizens rather than continuing their de-facto war on government?

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Grid issues are important but the threats aren’t just terrorists with high-powered rifles.

    In August 2011, Central Virginia was hit with an earthquake that pushed Dominion’s North Anna Nuclear Power Station beyond its design limits. It was shut for months as NRC and other experts studied what had happened. It was a truly serious situation. Of course, Vepco was fined years ago for misleading regulators on an old fault line at the site.

    As for the grid, my guess is that the software is available to redirect electricity flows and make them decentralized. Whether the infrastructure is there is another matter.

    Frankly, however, given the issues utilities have had with coal ash pollution i.e. Duke and the unresolved matters of burning coal, I would think that terrorist gunmen are pretty far down the threat list. Even earthquakes would rank higher.

    1. Don’t forget hurricanes and tornadoes. They can knock out the grid as well.

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