Va. Power burying 4K miles of lines

Dominion Virginia Power is beginning an estimated $2 billion program to place about 4,000 miles of historically outage-prone electric power lines underground by 2026.

Moving underground about 11 percent of the company’s overhead distribution lines — the taplines that carry power to homes and businesses in neighborhoods — could cut in half the time needed to restore power to all customers as a result of damage from major storms, Dominion Virginia Power said.

“This is really about reliability for our customers,” said Alan Bradshaw, the power company’s director of underground electric distribution.

Dominion Virginia Power will spend about $175 million a year to bury 350 to 400 miles of taplines annually, the company said. The program will generate 600 to 700 jobs annually across the utility’s Virginia service area during its duration, Bradshaw said.

If approved by state regulators, the program will initially add less than $1 to a typical residential customer’s monthly bill, rising to about $5 a month in a decade, the company said.

The utility’s Strategic Undergrounding Program would directly affect some 150,000 customers spread throughout the company’s service area.

The Richmond-based company will file an application with the State Corporation Commission on Oct. 30 for a rate increase to pay for the program.

Putting all utility power lines underground would be prohibitively expensive. The SCC estimated the total cost statewide at more than $80 billion and the average additional cost to individual customers at $3,300 a year.

All the property owners along a tap line will have to agree to having their line placed underground, including donating an easement allowing the company access to the land to build and maintain the line, the utility said. The company does not intend to buy right of way.

“It is possible we’ll have a couple of holdouts in a neighborhood,” Bradshaw said. “We’ve had a few customers turn us down.”

The company will select the projects from throughout its service area using what it describes as “a fair, data-driven process.” The program’s success will depend on gaining approval from property owners, Dominion Virginia Power said.

The utility is not saying which locations will be candidates for being placed underground.

“We know that customers want to know if their lines will be placed underground,” said company spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson. “As soon as we’ve completed an analysis of an area and determined that the lines could be placed underground, we’ll communicate directly with those customers.”

The power company will put taplines underground using directional boring rather than digging trenches.

The program’s scope and cost could rise as the distribution system grows and its value increases, the company said. About a third of Dominion Virginia Power’s 58,000 miles of distribution lines are underground now.

Starting with the simplest projects, work on the program began in July, Bradshaw said. Workers have completed about 20 jobs and 50 more are underway.

The Strategic Undergrounding Program is in its early development phase, Bradshaw said. “When it all comes together at the end of next year, we want to be ready to go full bore.”

Big storms, such as hurricanes and ice storms, often cause widespread power outages, which can last for days or even weeks in heavily-damaged areas.

The state’s largest electric utility with nearly 2.4 million customers, Dominion Virginia Power faces what workers call “the Dominion geometry problem.”

The company’s electricity poles are 40 feet tall, placed in rights-of-way that are 30 feet wide and lined by trees growing 60 to 80 feet high. Wind, snow and ice can bring down lines as trees and limbs and the weight of ice fall on the wires, damaging conductors, poles and transformers.

Hurricane Isabel in 2003 left 1.8 million Dominion Virginia Power customers without power, some for as long as two weeks. Those kinds of disruptions often leave customers clamoring for electric utilities to bury overhead power lines.

Placing the most vulnerable overhead taplines underground will reduce the number and length of outages in damage-prone neighborhoods. The time required to restore power to all customers would be significantly reduced when crews don’t have to make as many repairs after a storm.

“And we can direct resources to other customers,” Bradshaw said.

The project, however, will not be a cure-all for power outages, Dominion Virginia Power said.

During a major storm, large numbers of customers could still be affected because most underground electric service connects to overhead lines and equipment exposed to weather, trees, animals and vehicle accidents.

While outages will still occur, placing the most vulnerable parts of the distribution system underground should increase its overall reliability.

For instance, just one tapline in East Richmond, serving only two customers, has been the location of 26 repair calls in the past 10 years, Dominion Virginia Power said, while a subdivision in Newport News served by nine taplines has produced 61 calls for repair service in that time.

The undergrounding program, Bradshaw says, “is about how many work-repair locations we drive off the system, not just the number of customers.”

Distribution lines, which carry lower voltage current than transmission lines, are the final stage in the delivery of electricity to end users. Transmission lines are the big, high-voltage lines carrying electricity over long distances, such as from a power station to a city. Dominion Virginia Power has about 6,400 miles of the major lines.

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used by permission.