Florence Could Provide First Test of Dominion’s Undergrounding Program

Image source: Dominion. Click for larger image.

Hurricane Florence may not be the cataclysm for Virginia that everyone anticipated two or three days ago. Forecasts suggest that the hurricane will veer west, not north, when it hits the Carolina coast. But other hurricanes are spawning in the Atlantic Ocean, Virginia is still a potential target, and it is still worth exploring the implications of Dominion Energy’s grid transformation program for disaster preparedness.

A big part of Dominion’s proposed multibillion-dollar grid modernization program involves hardening infrastructure and burying vulnerable distribution lines to reduce the frequency and length of electricity outages in the event of a natural disaster.  The utility already has buried hundreds of the most outage-prone tap lines under a pilot program launched four years ago, and it proposes under the Grid Modernization and Security Act to bury thousands more, funded by profits over and above the level to which it normally would be entitled, in an expansion of the initiative.

No investments have been made under the auspices of legislation passed earlier this year. Dominion has submitted its modernization plan to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) for review, and it doesn’t expect a final order until January.

But Hurricane Florence could provide a test case for the value of the strategic undergrounding program. Over the past four years, Dominion has buried 968 miles of electric line. While undergrounding obviously increases reliability for the customers directly affected, there is a system-wide benefit, explains spokesman Rayhan Daudani. “The system wide benefit is seen when we can reallocate crews more quickly and respond to outages more quickly than we would have been able to before. Fewer down wires means fewer repair locations, which means our crews can respond to the outages remaining, restoring service more quickly for all customers.”

According to data filed with the SCC, distribution lines incorporated into the strategic undergrounding program experienced 29 outage events in 2017. That compares to 1,683 events that were predicted to have occurred in the absence of the burial program. The average outage duration for customers served was 1.05 minutes compared to a predicted 386 minutes.

The Dominion-supplied graphic above shows how the undergrounding program fits into larger disaster recovery efforts. The red bars schematically show the length of restoration time before the Strategic Undergrounding Program (SUP) and the green bars the length of time after. How accurate a reflection of reality this schematic is, I do not know, but it conveys what Dominion is talking about.

On a side note… For rate payers, there may be a silver lining to those hurricane storm clouds. In the past, the repair of storm damages was incorporated into base rates base and passed along to ratepayers. Under the Grid Modernization Act, Dominion’s base rates are frozen. If Hurricane Florence causes millions of dollars worth of damage, the utility will absorb the cost of repairs and restoration.

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10 responses to “Florence Could Provide First Test of Dominion’s Undergrounding Program

  1. To put this is proper perspective , two more questions:

    1. -What is VDOT doing to fix storm drains, bridges ?

    2. – what is being done about flooding in places like Norfolk and Portsmouth?

    Do we need more money to fix those things similar to the more money Dominion says they need to fix their things?

    just asking…….. seems like we hammer govt when it says it needs to increase taxes to pay for things.. but we accept Dominion doing the same thing… then just “expect” results… double standard?

  2. The residential underground power line program is funded by a special charge, a rate adjustment clause, and is not part of the broader grid program. You are conflating two different things. If Daudani conflated them, then further shame on him. Actually, either way ratepayers are getting the bill – and if indeed it works the stockholders will be getting all the financial benefit. For decades! Go ahead and take their money again, please – why are you flacking for free? We pay, they profit. Write it out 200 times, please…..

    Fair point, Larry. Oddly paying taxes bothers people way more than paying the utility, when you’d think it might be the other way around.

    • No, I wasn’t conflating the two. As I wrote: “The utility already has buried hundreds of the most outage-prone tap lines under a pilot program launched four years ago, and it proposes under the Grid Modernization and Security Act to bury thousands more.”

      True, I did not state specifically that the pilot program was financed with a rate adjustment clause. My apologies if that omission caused readers any confusion.

      You do raise an interesting point about the implication for profits. Ratepayers are helping pay for SUP through a rate adjustment clause, and Dominion benefits from lower operating costs, which flow to the bottom line under the freeze in base rates. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

  3. Two points.

    1. Underground lines can be affected by flooding. Ask the folks affected by Sandy.

    2. Steve is exactly right. Ratepayers will pay a RAC for any new undergrounding activity. If the underground lines reduce the storm recovery costs below the costs that are baked into the existing rates, the savings go only to the shareholders. Win for the utility – Lose for the customers (except perhaps a shorter outage time for some customers).

    • On the point of burying utilities and flooding… it is so true… While the folks living on high ground in NoVa don’t want to “see” their powerlines – very little thought has gone into what it actually takes to bury them where crossing terrain with hilly terrain, creeks and wetlands… not to mention places like
      Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach etc… yet Dominion has taken the complaints and rolled it into a program to serve some people who complain the most and charge everyone else… no two ways about it…….

      I attribute this to the same NIMBY complaint that they don’t want to see the power plants , nor wind turbines or solar panels.. they want their energy to be “invisible” and are willing to have everyone help pay for it!

  4. Ask folks if they want to pay higher taxes for better roads, or better schools, or better anything and you know what the answer is , especially here in BR!!!

    Yet … Jim B seems to be just fine with Dominion doing something very simlar in the name of giving folks something better but charging more for it.

    You can bet that if that were the Govt – there WOULD BE a complaint!!!

    • Jim B seems to be just fine with Dominion doing something very similar in the name of giving folks something better but charging more for it.

      I was not endorsing Dominion’s viewpoint in this post, just reporting it. I thought the questions were pretty relevant, given the proximity of Hurricane Florence. I asked the questions and reported on Dominion’s answers.

  5. Larry, this is very much the government. The General Assembly loves this program to place lines underground, is just fine with the way it “taxes” all ratepayers to bury the lines of a few. This may be one case where Dominion is doing their bidding as much as the other way around. The legislators would never admit the parallel with taxation, but the parallel is very strong. The SCC would kill it in a NY minute.

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