SCC Examiner Recommends Shorter Transmission Line Towers for Augusta

Image source: Staunton News Leader

Dominion Energy wants to rebuild 17.7 miles of a 500 kV power line through Augusta County to meet the electricity load of its western Virginia customers, and as long as it’s rebuilding the line, increase the height to accommodate an additional 230 kV line should the need for it ever arise. Building a double-circuit structure would add $6.1 million to the project but save between $44 million and $55 million if the utility had to come back later to add the second transmission line.

Local landowners, distressed by the visual impact on their property, oppose the higher line, and they want Dominion to pay between $1.3 million and $2.5 million extra to add a coating that would give the bright galvanized steel a brown color.

In a ruling issued earlier this month, State Corporation Commission hearing examiner Ann Berkebile ruled that the rebuilding of the existing Dooms-Valley 500 kV line is justified by the public convenience and necessity but that spending the additional money for taller towers is not. Further, she found that the expenditure of additional money to chemically dull the towers is warranted. The case now goes to the SCC’s three judges for a final ruling. Wrote Berkebile:

The ability to address a need that could arise at some time in the future at an incremental increased cost (and at a lower cost than is likely to be incurred should a future need arise) does not outweigh the actual detrimental impacts of significantly taller towers upon the scenic and historic assets of August County. Under the circumstances, I conclude that the Commission should approve the use of less expensive, shorter lattice towers for the rebuild.

Berkebile’s findings come at a time in which Dominion and other electric utilities are investing massive sums to upgrade their electric grids. Over the next 15 years, Virginia likely will see the retirement of more coal-fired plants and the construction of more solar farms and gas combustion-turbine plants. An open question is whether Dominion will be able to re-license its four nuclear power units. The grid, designed for a traditional configuration of electric-power generation also will need to be upgraded to meet a new configuration in which intermittent solar and wind sources play a role.

Dominion consulting engineer Peter Nedwick identified three scenarios that would support the need for the additional 230 kV line through Augusta County, according to Berkebile’s summary of the testimony. In her report, however, Berkebile did not discuss the scenarios or assess how likely any one of them was to occur.¬†SCC staff, she stated, was “unable to verify” a need for taller towers to accommodate a 230 kV line.

In his testimony, Nedwick also cited three instances in which single-circuit structures proved inadequate and Dominion was required to come back and rebuild transmission lines within a double-circuit structure. Given the relatively low cost of preserving the flexibility, summarized Berkebile, “he continued to support the double circuit option as a means of maximizing the use of existing [Right of Way] while maintaining flexibility to meet future demands and changes in [North American Electric Reliability Corporation] Reliability Standards.

The SCC staff supported the chemical dulling option to reduce the visual impact of the pipelines on the Augusta County landscape. A relatively new product, Natina, gives galvanized steel a brown color. According to a Dominion engineer, testing shows that the coating will not maintain a uniform appearance over time. Also, it will increase rust, be difficult to paint over, and hinder the natural development of a patina on the steel girders. Alternatives include COR-TEN weathering steel, hot-dipped galvanized steel, a chemically dulled (pre-dulled) steel.

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2 responses to “SCC Examiner Recommends Shorter Transmission Line Towers for Augusta

  1. There are immensely difficult tradeoffs involved in deciding how to design and build heavy infrastructure. Just ask the WMATA board. Here, tradeoffs include visual impact on local landowners versus the cost to all ratepayers to mitigate that visual impact in two respects: coating the galvanized steel for better appearance in the short run, and removing provision for double circuit use at a later date. I’m sure someone at the hearings probably suggested they place the line underground, or even eliminate its construction (costing all Dominion ratepayers a bundle in reliability and/or higher energy costs due to less efficient grid operations).

    The point is, that is why we have utility regulatory commissions like the VSCC. They conduct formal hearings where everyone has a due process opportunity to be heard and to cross examine the opposition. They have the Staff expertise and listen to other experts and the Commissioners acquire the decisional expertise to sort through it all. Here, they have delegated the first stages of the process to a Hearing Examiner; they will affirm or deny that recommended decision. The process isn’t even over yet. Yet already we have the locals jockeying around to overrule whatever the SCC decides through the political process: by influencing who the GA puts on the Commission next, and by invoking the GA’s penchant for getting involved directly in utility regulation and micromanaging the result.

    Revisiting every administrative decision multiple times is wasteful of everyone’s resources and results in many inconsistent decisions (let alone enormous and costly delay). Based on limited information I don’t fully agree with this decision (I’d be inclined to go with COR-TEN steel; I’d lean toward keeping the two-circuit capability at such a low incremental cost including the extra height) but I’m not willing to take the time to better inform myself or submit additional pieces of paper into the formal record here. The decision is not patently outrageous; it is apparently reasonable based on what we know from the press and this blog. Leave it alone! Don’t make this another frustration of the modern world: another example of everyone tied in knots so a decision cannot be made, so needed infrastructure cannot be built, so stupidity can reign. We have a process here; it has weighed the tradeoffs and come to a preliminary decision; let it be!

  2. I’m pretty much of a similar view except in this day and time , more and more people challenge decisions like this through the courts and politically on primarily a NIMBY basis.

    We have folks that oppose wind turbines, solar, pipelines, and even cell towers and where I live – new homes that “overwhelm” schools and roads!

    I don’t envy the SCC nor Dominion in trying to thread the needle though Dominion has and does play hardball with both the SCC and the public and the public is responding in kind on some projects where they don’t agree with Dominion’s increasing reputation with “our way or the highway” approaches.

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