Category Archives: Disaster planning

Buried Lines and Microgrids

Downed power lines in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: ABC News.

Virginia has enjoyed a welcome respite from meteorological history, having dodged full-fledged hurricanes since Hurricane Isabel struck the Old Dominion in 2003 and Hurricane Gaston in 2004. But sooner or later, we’ll get hammered again. After surveying the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, made worse by the total collapse of the territory’s electric grid, we Virginians should be asking ourselves how well our electric grid would stand up to a Category 4 hurricane — and what can we do to make it more resilient.

Two potential actions come immediately to mind: burying distribution lines and decentralizing the grid.

Last year Dominion Virginia Power advanced a $2 billion plan to bury the utility’s most outage-prone and difficult-to-repair electric distribution lines to limit the loss of electricity during severe weather events and speed the restoration of electric power. The company said the improvements would cut disruption of service to customers in half after a major hurricane. While the State Corporation Commission approved a small-scale version of the plan, it rejected the full-scale proposal as not worth the cost to rate payers.

There are alternatives to burying electric lines, such as hardening sub-stations, installing sensors that provide early-warning detection of damage, and aggressively pruning trees along right of way. But with the example of a prostrate Puerto Rico before our eyes, one might be more inclined to err on the side of caution. The wisdom of the line-burial policy depends upon the numbers — the cost of burying the lines, the cost of the alternatives, the number of people affected, the likelihood of a major hurricane or other natural disaster, and the economic value lost due to disrupted electric service. I don’t know if anyone has assembled all those numbers, but the topic is serious enough that someone — Dominion, perhaps, or state government — should pull them together for the public to digest.

Others have suggested that Virginia should move toward a distributed electrical grid, less dependent upon central power stations and endless miles of transmission and distribution lines. A distributed grid would rely instead upon wind and solar, batteries, and microgrid technology that allows local circuits to operate independently of the larger system. In theory, local islands of electric power would function even if the larger system were thrown into disarray.

Slate magazine describes Higashi Matsushima, Japan, in the aftermath of the earthquake that knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant:

After losing three-quarters of its homes and 1,100 people in the March 2011 tremblor and tsunami … The city of 40,000 chose to construct micro-grids and de-centralized renewable power generation to create a self-sustaining system capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without the need of the region’s local power utility.

The city’s steps illustrate a massive yet little known effort to take dozens of Japan’s towns and communities off the power grid and make them partly self-sufficient in generating electricity.

Sounds great. But questions arise. How well would Americans function with only 25% of their electricity supply? Also, how well do solar panels hold up in 120 mile-per-hour winds? Some pro-solar sources on the Web say that panels are designed to withstand up to 140 m.p.h. Do those claims withstand scrutiny?

Another issue is what happens when a massive weather system blots out the sun for days at a time. Batteries might be able to store power for a day, but solar + batteries could leave leave owners of rooftop solar bereft of electricity until the storm front passes and the sun reappears. On the other hand, Inside Climate News reports that, while Hurricane Irma cut power to 6.7 million Floridians, homeowners with rooftop solar arrays did just fine.

If unbiased reporting and analysis backs up such claims, perhaps Virginia needs to discuss how to move more expeditiously towards a distributed grid. That would mean solving tricky issues like net metering — whether to charge rooftop solar owners for access to backup power from the larger grid. A mediation initiative is trying to work through that question now. Perhaps Puerto Rico’s plight will provide the stakeholders with a heightened sense of urgency.

Disaster + Fiscal Insolvency = Puerto Rico

Lights out in San Juan. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.

I can watch only so much CNN and MSNBC before I get nauseated, but I have seen enough the past day or two to be appalled at how the media are spinning the post-hurricane disaster of Puerto Rico: It’s another Katrina. The Trump administration hasn’t responded fast enough or aggressively enough to help the battered territory, where two hurricanes shut down electric service, cell phones, the transportation system and government services. Others can engage in the blame game if they want to, but I want to point out the obvious: Puerto Rico illustrates the incapacity of a bankrupt government to carry out basic functions under highly stressful circumstances.

And let that be a warning to everyone. Puerto Rico is the future of many U.S. states unless we get our acts together. Garnering less attention than the human tragedy in Puerto Rico, the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut have made headlines, too, in the past week. After Pennsylvania passed a budget without enough revenue to pay for its spending, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the state’s debt to A+, down two notches from the coveted AAA rating. Meanwhile, despite having the highest median household income in the country and the second highest tax burden (taxes as percentage of income), Connecticut faces a $3.5 billion biennial deficit. The state, notes the Wall Street Journal, is groaning under heavy debt load, large unfunded pension liabilities, and a shrinking population. S&P has placed nine Connecticut localities on negative credit watch.

Those two states have a long way to go before they achieve Puerto Rico-levels of insolvency, but they indicate the direction the U.S. is heading. On a national level, Republicans have abandoned any pretense at crafting a tax reform plan that will shrink the deficit (something that can be pinned on the Trump administration). The national debt is $20 trillion and growing, even in the absence of a recession, at a rate of more than $600 billion a year. It’s not a question of if we will share Puerto Rico’s fiscal fate, but when.

So, what happens when governments approach fiscal insolvency? One thing they do is starve infrastructure maintenance. Puerto Rican roads were in worse physical condition than roads in any U.S. state. Of the island’s 2,280 bridges, 55.8% were considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete before the hurricanes struck. The territory has chronically under-invested in its water systems, which also failed during the hurricanes, and the government-owned electric system, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has been a disaster-in-waiting for years now.

Reports the Los Angeles Times:

As of 2014 the government-owned company was $9 billion in debt, and in July, it filed for bankruptcy under the provisions set by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a law signed by President Obama in 2016.

Problems accumulated. Cutbacks in tree pruning left the 16,000 miles of primary power lines spread across the island vulnerable. Inspections, maintenance and repairs were scaled back. Up to 30% of the utility’s employees retired or migrated to the U.S. mainland, analysts said, and the utility had trouble hiring experienced employees to replace them.

The neglect led to massive and chronic failures at the Aguirre and Palo Seco power plants. The three-day blackout in September 2016 underscored how fragile the system was, and that the company was “unable to cope with this first contingency,” the Synapse Energy report said.

No wonder the island’s electric grid collapsed. No wonder officials say it will take four to six months to restore electric power.

If you want your city, county or state to show resilience in the face of natural disasters, you need to have governments and utilities that are fiscally resilient. Entities hobbled by excessive debt scrimp on maintenance and upgrades, leaving roads and utilities more vulnerable to disruption and depriving authorities of resources with which to respond to emergencies.

Puerto Rico would be in terrible shape no matter what. Hurricane Maria wrought devastating destruction, and recovery is impeded by the fact that the island, unlike Houston and Florida, is inaccessible to help by land. But the incapacity of bankrupt government and utilities have made the challenges immeasurably worse.

A Patch in Time Saves Nine

The WannaCry and Petya cyber-assaults on banks, airports and other businesses in Europe in May used a vulnerability in Microsoft software to infect machines and spread around the world. Microsoft had issued a patch to close the back door months earlier, but many users never installed the update. Ironically, when Microsoft creates a software patch, it tips off bad guys to a previously unrecognized vulnerability. Cyber-criminals can create a virus to exploit that vulnerability sure in the knowledge that many corporations will fail to update the all of the thousands of computers and devices in their system.

The single-most effective thing that any IT manager can do to maintain security is to promptly install software patches. The task sounds pretty basic. But it’s easier said than done.

Christiansburg-based FoxGuard Solutions helps clients keep software up to date on critical infrastructure such as power grids, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. Founded in 1981, the company has seen its cyber-security business expand at a compounded growth rate of 42% over the past five years.

As far as FoxGuard CEO Marty Muscatello is aware, none of its customers were affected by the WannaCry and Petya attacks, reports Jacob Demmit with the Roanoke Times, after accompanying U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, on a tour of the FoxGuard facility. The company’s software is used in 40 different states and 35 countries. Reports Demmit:

FoxGuard has been using a $4.3 million cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Energy since 2013 to develop tools to track software updates and patches for 128 companies in the critical infrastructure industry.

It’s pretty easy to keep a single home computer up to date, but that becomes increasingly difficult when an IT department is trying to protect a power plant that could have 100,000 different machines across a power grid. A company might not even be aware of some computers on its network that could let hackers in, like an air conditioning system.

FoxGuard, it would seem, has a bright future, for its market will expand exponentially. As the Internet of Things takes off, embedding microchips and wireless in billions of devices, corporations will be hard-pressed to keep track of them all. Patching them all will be almost impossible, for Original Equipment Manufacturers typically stop updating software for devices they no longer manufacture. The challenge is particularly acute for electric utilities, which have cobbled together multiple generations of technology to operate their systems. As they move increasingly toward flexible “smart grids” to accommodate solar and wind power, they will install thousands of sensors and actuators across their systems, potentially making them even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

For a monthly fee, says the Roanoke Times, FoxGuard tracks all those machines and makes sure the client knows of every update on a timely basis. The company can even download and test the update in its own lab to check for compatibility issues before installing it in the field.

Bacon’s bottom line: The news brings daily remembers of how vulnerable the global Internet-connected economy is, and how anyone with a good cyber-security technology or service can tap into a global market. Governor Terry McAuliffe is right about this: Cyber-security is one of the biggest economic-development opportunities to come along in Virginia in a long time.

Dominion Urges Citizens to Report Suspicious Activity

PG&E’s Metcalf substation, where a sniper attack knocked out 17 transformers. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Dominion Energy issued an unusual press release a couple of days ago, urging customers to “report suspicious activity.”

“Suspicious activity includes anything from someone recording or monitoring Dominion Energy facilities to someone who doesn’t seem like they belong in a certain area or is behaving strangely,” said Marc Gaudette, Director of Corporate Security, Safety and Health. “What may seem like a small piece of information could be the missing piece of the puzzle that law enforcement needs to prevent an unexpected event.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Dominion, like other electric utilities, finds itself in a difficult situation. On the one hand, it is rightfully concerned about the threats to the integrity of the electric grid at the hands of terrorists or other saboteurs. The electric power industry has been on hyper alert ever since a 2014 sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf Transmission Substation, which severely damaged 17 transformers and forced the utility to reroute electric power in order to avoid blackouts. The situation is all the more urgent for Dominion, which has shut down two of three of its Yorktown Power Stations, leaving the Virginia Peninsula more vulnerable than usual to blackouts should an accident knock out a transmission line on a hot-weather day with elevated electricity demand.

Dominion cannot survey every substation or every mile of transmission line 24/7, and it makes sense to call upon the public if someone sees something suspicious. As the press release states: “”Think security and safety… If you spot something suspicious, speak up. … Act as our eyes and ears and report any suspicious activity near a Dominion Energy facility by calling 1-800-684-8486. Of course, in an emergency you should always call 911.”

Dominion’s problem is that it can’t get too specific about what to look out for. For one, the utility doesn’t want to generate unnecessary public alarm by exaggerating the threat. Even more important, the company doesn’t want to tip the hand of any potential bad guys by getting too specific about what to look for, thus revealing potential vulnerabilities.

The result of these conflicting imperatives leaves people unclear about what exactly they should be looking for. But a half-informed citizenry is preferable to a totally uninformed citizenry. And, given the stakes involved, false alarms are preferable to no alarms. I live near an electric transmission line and substation, which I routinely ignore. Now, I’ll be keeping an eye out for… whatever…. I’m not quite sure. But better safe than sorry.

Avoiding Blackouts with a Remedial Action Scheme

Under its "Remedial Action Scheme" Dominion may not have to implement rolling blackouts in the Peninsula on high-risk days.

Under its Remedial Action Scheme Dominion may not have to implement rolling blackouts in the Peninsula on high-risk days.

Two years ago Dominion Virginia Power warned of dire consequences to the Virginia Peninsula if the company could not build a 500 kV transmission line across the James River. An analysis prepared by engineering consulting firm Stantec and submitted to the U.S. Corps of Engineers left little to the imagination:

Dominion will be required to implement pre-contingency load shedding (i.e. rolling blackouts) in the [North Hampton Roads Load Area] to prevent the possibility of cascading outages impacting the reliability of the interconnected transmission system. … It is estimated that rolling blackouts would initially occur 80 days a year and would continue to increase in number as load continues to grow in the area. …

The potential exists that up to 50% of the customers in this load area could be without electricity for days or even weeks until the event which caused the failure could be fixed.

Yesterday I posted an article based on an interview with Steve Chafin, Dominion director of transmission planning and strategic initiatives, that seemed to tell a different story. While the utility still said the Peninsula will be at risk for 50 to 80 days a year after shutting down the Yorktown Power Station’s No. 1 and No. 2 generators April 15, the ability to continue running the No. 3 generator up to 29 days a year will reduce that threat to about 50 days. Only if an unplanned event knocked out a transmission line — something that has happened only six times the past ten years — on one of those days would Dominion have to shed load. While there are no guarantees, Chafin told me, “We think we can get through the summer without any rotating blackouts.”

After publishing the article, I got to thinking about the marked difference in tone. Two years ago, when Dominion was trying to push the Surry-Skiffes project through regulatory approval in the face of intense opposition by preservationists, the company was stressing how disastrous things would be if the project wasn’t built. Now that the permit review by the Army Corps of Engineers is reaching its final stages and a mitigation settlement seems imminent, Dominion is downplaying the risk.

Yesterday I asked Chafin and Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokesperson, to explain the change in rhetoric. They stand by what Dominion said then, and they stand by what Dominion says now, and they say there’s a legitimate explanation.

The difference between then and now is that Dominion has set up a Remedial Action Scheme (RAS).

Dominion worries about an uncontrolled, cascading blackout emanating from the Peninsula, the most vulnerable zone in the Dominion electric system and one of the most fragile in the 13-state PJM Interconnection territory. If blackouts erupted there, Dominion’s grid models can’t predict where they would stop. The United States conceivably could experience an outage as widespread as the infamous 2003 Northeastern blackout that knocked out power to millions.

With approval from the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council and PJM Interconnection, Dominion has set up an RAS to isolate the Peninsula if an unplanned outage occurs. “We put in an automatic, specialized relay scheme,” says Chafin. “If it senses certain conditions, it will immediately drop load to 150,000 customers.” The draconian action will prevent a cascading shut-down of transmission lines emanating from the Peninsula to points beyond.

Before the Remedial Action Scheme, Dominion would have had to implement rotating blackouts on high-load days before a component failure or other disruption occurred. Because the RAS responds immediately when needed, it allows Dominion to implement blackouts after the disruption.

While implementation of the RAS under a worst-case scenario would cause a massive outage on the Peninsula, it would nip in the bud an uncontrolled blackout that could rip through the nation’s electric grid. The chances of it occurring are remote, however, and it reduces the necessity of initiating precautionary, controlled blackouts when the Peninsula region reaches peak electric load some 50 or so times a year.

“We have a responsibility to provide reliability to our customers. We have an equally important responsibility to protect the safety and integrity of the grid,” Chafin says. “The automation will help to reduce the risk on a short-term and temporary basis.”

The Remedial Action Scheme will be available until the Surry-Skiffes transmission line receives regulatory approval and construction is complete, a process that will take at least another 18 months.

“We’ve been working on a Peninsula solution for a long time,” says Anderson. “We filed in 2013, and have worked with the Corps for almost four years. This is a serious situation. … We’ve had to look at what other things we can do in the meantime. This is a temporary, short-term tool that will help get us through the most critical period.”

Why the Controversy over Burying Electric Lines?

Dominion says burying electric lines prone to outages will reduce repair costs and restore juice to customers quickly.

Dominion says burying electric lines prone to outages will reduce repair costs and restore juice to customers more rapidly. But will undergrounding programs pay for themselves?

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted unanimously yesterday to approve a bill, SB 1473, that would declare that burying electric lines lines is “in the public interest.” The bill would apply to local distribution lines, or “tap” lines, that have a 10-year average of nine or more unplanned outages per mile. Dominion Virginia Power says it has 4,000 miles of such lines.

About a year and a half ago, the SCC nixed a Dominion plan to bury 526 miles of distribution lines and recoup about $700 million from customers over 40 years on the grounds that the cost-effectiveness was unproven. The commission approved instead a pilot project that would provide an empirical base for evaluating the economics of burying outage-prone electric lines.

It’s not clear from the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting exactly what effect the law would have on State Corporation Commission (SCC) decision making.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said that the bill is not intended to circumvent the SCC ruling. “Clearly, it doesn’t do that,” he said. “The SCC retains the ultimate authority as they review and approve and deny every application going forward.”

The company has argued that burying the most vulnerable lines would reduce electric outages and speed recovery from storms and other disruptive events. “What we’re looking to do,” said Alan Bradshaw, director of the underground program, “is eliminate work.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t understand why burying electric lines has become so controversial. The logic seems fairly straightforward. Outages occur with predictable frequency along some 4,000 miles of local distribution lines in Dominion’s system. It costs a predictable amount in manpower, equipment and supplies to restore those electric lines under routine weather conditions, plus an unpredictable amount stemming from major storms. Dominion should be able to put a dollar value on the cost of burying the lines, and it should be able to put a dollar value on the cost of restoring the lines over, say, a 10-year or 20-year period of time. If the cost of burying a given mile of line, amortized over 40 years, exceeds the average annual cost of restoring the power, then it’s a poor deal for ratepayers. Conversely, if the cost of burial is lower than the cost of restoration, ratepayers save money. Go for it!

If we want to delve a little deeper, we also could assign a “cost” to electrical customers for going without electricity. That cost is trivial if the outage lasts only an hour or two, but it could mount exponentially if the disruption lasts for days, food is ruined, work (for those who work at home) is disrupted, and families seek shelter in motels or the homes of family and friends. I don’t know how to calculate such a number, and I don’t know if the SCC took such intangible costs into account when ruling on Dominion’s tap line-burial request. If there is a reasonable way to assign a cost, it should be included.

Dominion now has more than a year of experience under the pilot project — experience that includes the massive outages caused by Hurricane Matthew. Surely we have enough data to make the requisite calculations to devise a cost-effective solution.

A Sinking Feeling at Naval Station Norfolk

naval-station-norfolk

The concrete piers at the Naval Station Norfolk are a lot more complex than the rickety wooden structures lining the waterfront down at the Rivah. Electric lines and steam pipes on the underbelly of the piers conduct power to the giant warships at dock. When water levels rise high enough, propelled by tides, storm surges and ocean winds, water can immerse the pipes. Base officials cut off electricity in anticipation of such events, which can disrupt training and maintenance on the ships.

Ten of the station’s 14 piers were built in the early 1900s. Sensors show that the water level has risen 18 inches over the past century. Navy officials say another 18-inch rise could incapacitate the naval base, reports E&E Publishing, which covers energy and environmental issues.

Norfolk is experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast. Aside from warmer global temperatures, which melts glacier ice and expands water volume, the shift of tectonic plates and the pumping of water from aquifers underneath the city are causing subsidence. Fresh water withdrawal accounts for about half the subsidence.

For now, the Navy is adapting. It has replaced four old piers with double-decker piers and elevated utilities and has plans to build another eight more at a cost of $100 million each. States the article: “The base recently constructed a new building that sits 3 feet higher above the ground than normally encouraged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s including new standards and guidelines in its engineering plans for future projects.”

— JAB

Storm Surge

Distribution operator Stony Gillespie directs power flows on the central Virginia distribution grid.

by James A. Bacon

Jeffrey A. Hutchinson, manager of  Dominion Virginia Power’s central operations center, first took note of Hurricane Matthew a month ago when it was a storm forming off Africa. Keeping tabs through the company’s two meteorologists and subscription weather services, he tracked its progress across the Atlantic Ocean. He felt relieved when the storm seemed to be heading toward the Caribbean – Virginia would dodge another bullet. But then it took a hard-right turn, barreling north along the Florida coast.

The operations center, which coordinates Dominion’s response to major storms, needed to get ready. One way or another, Hutchinson knew, he and his team had a long week ahead.

“We went from thinking that Matthew wouldn’t impact us, to thinking that Florida would be impacted and we’d need to send help, to realizing that we’d need help,” says Robbie Wright, director of planning and system reliability.

When a big storm threatens, Dominion mobilizes with one aim in mind: to restore electric power to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Over the years, the utility has developed a system for coping with catastrophe. The linemen comprise the visible, front-line force, clearing trees, patching power lines, and restoring substations. But they are backed by an extensive back-office staff that identifies issues and organizes a response. Everyone in the company from accountants to customer service reps has a designated support role, whether they’re patrolling power lines in the field or managing logistics in the operations center.

That system kicked in for Matthew. Even though the storm lost its hurricane force by the time it reached Dominion’s service territory in North Carolina and Virginia, it still packed a wallop. Gusts of wind reached 70 miles per hour in the Outer Banks. While the storm surge was mild, seven to ten inches of rain caused more flooding than anyone expected. According to spokesman Janell M. Hancock, Matthew was the 9th most destructive weather event in Dominion’s 100-plus-year history.

The high winds and heavy rain knocked out service to about 350,000 customers in Dominion’s eastern region and another 90,000 in the central region. Repair crews had to replace 285 poles, 870 cross arms, 2,100 insulators, 730 cutouts, 260 pole-mounted transformers and more than 22 miles of overhead wire.

One of Dominion’s top management priorities is reducing routine power outages and restoring power after major weather events as rapidly as possible. Preparations begin long before the bad weather hits. The company maintains a “portfolio” of programs geared to improving reliability year-round. Initiatives range from aggressive tree-trimming along power lines to upgrading sensitive equipment to stainless steel to protect against salt corrosion in coastal areas.

Dominion spends about $200 million a year reconditioning its distribution system (which steps down electricity from the high-powered transmission lines to lower-voltage lines serving homes and businesses), says Hutchinson. Some of that money goes to “hardening” infrastructure, some of it to installing sensors that detect power interruptions, and some of it to systems that allow control room operators to re-route electric flows.

Some of the biggest improvements have occurred out of sight, in Dominion’s three regional distribution operations centers. An extraordinary amount of information flows into these centers, allowing operators to quickly identify problems, set priorities and dispatch linemen into the field. “More and more, it’s about the data,” says Wright.

Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.

Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.

As Matthew approached Virginia and North Carolina, Hutchinson huddled with his staff to prepare for impact. Dominion belongs to a mutual-aid consortium of power companies that send crews to help one another during emergencies. As the storm track shifted, the power companies were in continual communication, conferring on who needed how much help and where it would come from. Dominion actually sent some of its contract crews down to assist the Florida clean-up; just as their work was finished there, they had to high-tail it back to Virginia. Continue reading

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.”

This Is What a Fiscal Meltdown Looks Like, II

Looks like you'll have to repair it yourself, boys.

Looks like you’ll have to repair it yourself, boys.

by James A. Bacon

The fiscal chickens are coming home to roost in Petersburg, which has racked up some $19 million in unpaid bills and is on track to run a $12 million deficit this year. The city is learning what happens when vendors are scared of not getting paid.

Yesterday, we heard that Central Virginia’s regional waste management authority was threatening to suspend the city’s garbage pickup and recycling services due to $632,000 in unpaid bills. Today we read that one vendor has repossessed $390,000 worth of new firefighter breathing apparatuses, while another, owed about $1 million, has terminated a contract to service police cars, fire trucks and other city vehicles.

First Vehicle Services Inc., a national vendor, claims to be owed $1.1 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The city asserts that it owes only $844,000. The contract was terminated in April at the city’s request, city officials say, to move all repairs in-house as a budget efficiency.

Meanwhile, Richmond-based Fire Protection Equipment Co. repossessed 53 new breathing apparatuses purchased through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. Under the grant, FEMA would pay 90% of the $568,000 tab while the city paid 10%.

According to Deputy Fire Chief Brian Sturdivant, the FEMA funds arrived in two payments, but he doesn’t know what happened to the money:  “That’s a question for the city manager. We have followed the requirements of the grant, but once the paperwork leaves the fire department, it heads straight to City Hall.”

The new breathing apparatus replaced older equipment that was suffering wear and tear. Last month, older equipment failed for two firefighters, one of whom had to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Meanwhile, the fire department has suspended annual physicals for its firefighters due to an unpaid balance with its contracted physician.

Bacon’s bottom line: Now that vendors understand Petersburg’s perilous fiscal condition, they’re stampeding toward the exits. As they try to limit their exposure, one piece of bad news feeds the next. It’s ugly, and it’s terrifying, and it’s putting Petersburg citizens and employees at risk. But this is what happens when a local government experiences a financial meltdown.

Hopefully, Petersburg will serve as a sobering example for others. Virginians need to move beyond the gawking-at-the-fiscal-car-wreck phase and start asking serious questions. Is Petersburg a one-off situation, or is it suffering from systemic challenges that potentially threaten other Virginia localities? If other localities are in earlier stages of financial collapse, is their predicament due to managerial ineptitude, flawed policies, or structural issues beyond their ability to control? What can be done to ensure that similar meltdowns don’t happen to anyone else?