Category Archives: Disaster planning

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?

Guarding the Grid

transmission_lineby James A. Bacon

It’s easy to spin nightmare scenarios leading to the collapse of the electric grid. North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon a mile overhead, sending out a super-charged electro-magnetic pulse that melts down transmission lines and blows out substations. The electricity overload races ahead of anyone’s ability to control it in a cascading effect that knocks out power for vast swaths of the country. Because key components of the grid take more than a year to manufacture and deliver, electric power takes interminably long to restore. The economy collapses. Millions die.

If you find that threat implausible, how about this one? A massive discharge of radiation from the sun overwhelms the earth’s magnetic field, melts down transmission lines, blows out sub-stations, and…. you know the rest. Or, this: In coordinated strikes, terrorists knock out vulnerable sub-stations, triggering the meltdown of electric lines…. Or cyber-terrorists infiltrate a utility network, overriding the power company’s controls, creating overloads and triggering a meltdown…

Such story-lines sound over-wrought, the stuff of grade B movies or pulp novels. They could never happen in real life, you say. Yet there have been enough deliberate physical and cyber attacks on a small scale, as if someone is probing the system, that many experts deem the threat to be very real. And most of us can still remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, caused by sagging electric lines coming into contact with overgrown trees, which demonstrated how a failure in one location can ripple across an entire grid. Fifty-five million people in the U.S. and Canada were effected.

The United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia have been moving in their slow, ponderous way to protect against those threats, and Garry Kranz has written an excellent article in Virginia Business magazine describing what Dominion Virginia Power and others are doing to safeguard against the disaster scenarios.

Writes Kranz:

Dominion plans to spend up to $500 million over the next five to seven years on a variety of security initiatives. The strategy is to harden its transmission substations and other critical infrastructure, add more mobile transmission equipment and boost stockpiles of backup gear. It plans to bolster perimeter security with ultramodern construction and use sophisticated technologies to pre-empt intruders. …

Dominion also is investing in increased grid reliability through the construction of a new systems operations center in Henrico County. Costing an estimated $100 million, the center will be able to perform real-time monitoring of the transmission grid to maintain electric reliability. Projected to open in 2017, the facility will replace Dominion’s current operations center at the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico, which has been around since 1992.

Another tool in the security toolbox is penetration testing.  A standard security technique for utilities and related industries, it allows companies through what is known as a “pen test” to systematically try to defeat internal security controls and procedures to pinpoint any weaknesses.

“We give penetration testers an advantage by moving them inside our network to see how far they get. Sometimes we tell our people the tests will take place, but often we don’t tell them. We want to see if our processes help them detect abnormal activity and report it,” says Engels, who does not share any improvements Dominion has made as a result.

Micro-grid technology also promises enhanced grid reliability, according to Jason Nichols, director of Scitor Corp.’s iSpace lab. Scitor is part of McLean-based defense contractor SAIC. Some military bases in Virginia already deploy micro-grids. Dominion also is funding micro-grid demonstration projects using renewable fuels at several state universities.

“If a portion of Virginia’s public grid goes down, a micro-grid gives the military base the potential to provide local generation to keep hospitals and other critical services running in some sort of degraded state,” Nichols says.

As it happens, while attending freshman orientation earlier this week at a certain unnamed university my son will be attending this year, I encountered a cyber-security professor who had just arrived for his first day on the job. He and I struck up a conversation about this very topic: cyber-security on the grid. What he told me was alarming. Speaking from his personal experience consulting with a major electric utility in the Southeast U.S. (not in Virginia), he found that the control systems cobbled different generations of technology as far back as the 1950s. Vulnerabilities were rampant. I was left with the impression that the only thing preventing infiltration by cyber-enemies was the overwhelming complexity of the chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire system that only a handful of long-time company employees even understood. Whether senior management comprehends the magnitude of these vulnerabilities is an interesting question. Continue reading

The Tradeoffs of Burying Electric Power Lines

How much is it worth to ensure faster restoration of electric service after a major storm? A lot, if it’s you. Perhaps not so much, if it’s someone else!

by James A. Bacon

Anyone who regards the State Corporation Commission as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power really isn’t paying attention. SCC commissioners have their own priorities, and they aren’t necessarily those of Dominion. An example was on display yesterday when the commission held hearings on a Dominion request to spend $140 million to bury its most vulnerable power lines so it could get customers back on line quicker after widespread outages.

The SCC had rejected an earlier Dominion proposal to spend $263 million on a plan to bury the 20% of overhead lines most responsible for outages and time lost. Dominion had argued that burying those lines would cut average electricity restoration times after major storms in half. After the SCC rebuffed that proposal, the utility came back with a scaled-back proposal to spend $140 million, adding a modest $6 per year to customers bills.

Based on their comments and questions, the commissioners did not look favorably upon it. Writes John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Commissioner Mark C. Christie said during the hearing that the utility’s calculation of the societal benefit to justify the plan is the wrong measurement since less expensive options to reduce outages — such as increased tree trimming — would have similar impact.

“The whole question about this thing is bang for the buck,” Christie said. “Certainly, you will get fewer outages when the storm comes through. But how do you know all the extra money you spent on undergrounding was more cost-effective than having more trucks out there or tree-trimming or whatever less expensive options?

“We know if you underground a line down a block, we know it’s going to benefit that block in all likelihood. Does that mean it was worth the expenditure that goes into peoples’ bills?

Dominion maintains a portfolio of a dozen different reliability programs, encompassing tree trimming, upgrading old equipment to current standards, and installing sensors to detect failing parts and prioritize investment, among others. (See “Towards a Smarter Grid.”) The company is continually fine-tuning its allocation of resources. For example, it has moved from trimming routes every three years to an approach that takes into account line voltage, how fast the trees grow and many other factors. The inability to trim trees outside of electric-line right of way, said Dominion lawyers at the hearing, places a major restriction on how aggressively the company can trim.

Bacon’s bottom line: Two points…

First: Electric reliability is part of the company’s DNA. One of the metrics Dominion uses to gauge its own performance is the speed at which it restores electricity service. Undoubtedly the SCC commissioners take reliability into account, but they appear to be more concerned at the moment with the impact of spending on rate payers. And who can blame them? Dominion, like other utilities across the country, has spent billions of dollars meeting tougher federal standards for toxic emissions, and it expects to spend billions more meeting the Clean Power Plan standards for carbon emissions. With all the concern over terrorism, cyber-attacks, electro-magnetic pulses and other threats to grid security, the company also is spending hundreds of millions on measures to harden the grid. Ultimately, citizens and businesses pay for all this. In the instance of restoring service after storms, the SCC seems to be prioritizing cost over reliability.

Second: Dominion has sought, or is seeking, SCC approval for a half dozen major electric transmission line projects that have aroused the ire of citizens concerned about the visual impact. Invariably, transmission-line foes suggest burying the line. That option has been prominently suggested for the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek line which would impact views of the James River near the historic Jamestown settlement. I am speculating here, but I’m wondering if the SCC is skeptical about the cost of burying electric lines in any context, not just for ensuring reliability.

In terms of pure self interest, Dominion has no reason to object to burying distribution and transmission lines — as long as the SCC allows it to recover its costs. If Dominion balks at burying lines, it’s because the executives who deal with the SCC daily and know the minds of regulators anticipate a tough sell before the commission. It may be hard for people to wrap their mind’s around this, but the SCC is boss and Dominion is the supplicant.

Making NIT More Productive, More Resilient

NIT

Norfolk International Terminal (NIT)

by James A. Bacon

For the millions of Virginians living above the fall line, the struggle that Hampton Roads has with rising sea levels and increasing flooding may seem remote and far away. Why should we care? After all, does anybody in Hampton Roads give a hoot about our problems?

Kit Chope, vice president of sustainability for the Virginia Port Authority, gave a pretty darn good reason this morning for why Virginians across the Commonwealth should take an interest in the region’s increasing vulnerability to storm surges and flooding: Anything that disrupts port operations disrupts the economy of the state. Some 530,000 jobs and 10% of the state’s gross domestic product are tied to port activities, he said.

“What affects the port affects the state,” said Chope in a panel discussion of the 2016 Resilient Virginia Conference, during which a major theme was the long-term threat that sea level rise and flooding poses to Hampton Roads.

Upstream Virginia has gotten the message. Included in the $2 billion bond package approved by the General Assembly in the 2016 session is $350 million to upgrade cargo-handling cranes at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT). The capital investment has been billed primarily as a response to growing cargo traffic and the need to expand capacity. But there’s more to it than that, said Chope. Modernization also will provide more protection from hurricane storm surges that could inundate the facility and knock it out of operation.

The Port of New York and New Jersey, the third largest port in the country, got a taste of what could go wrong during superstorm Sandy. A nine-foot storm surge inundated the portsm washing hazmat materials and other debris into the water channels and rendering electrical power unreliable. Flooded terminals closed for a week, leading to the diversion of 25,000 shipping containers and 58 vessels (some to Hampton Roads). Another 15,000 containers were lost, along with 9,000 automobiles and 4,500 trucks and vehicles.

The ports of Virginia, the nation’s fifth largest port complex, are determined to avoid a similar capacity, Chope said.

Thanks to the bond package, new electricity-powered, rail-mounted gantries will replace the existing diesel-powered straddle cranes. The investment will make possible a 50% increase in the number of containers to be loaded and unloaded. Getting less attention is the fact that the Virginia Port Authority is studying how to protect the terminal from disruption. “Where are we most at risk? Where are our critical nodes? What are the potential points of failure?”

For example, electric vaults at ground level will be elevated above projected storm surge levels. Buildings will be hardened to protect IT systems used to track cargo and communicate with shippers. “Data is king,” Chope said. It must be protected.

The VPA’s resilience efforts have been internally focused mostly, but the port relies upon utilities, especially electricity, and is inextricably tied to the network of railroads, highways and local roads that link the terminals to major markets. If local roads flood, as they are prone to do in the City of Norfolk, that could hinder trucks driving in and out with containers. Everything is interconnected. “What’s good for the city is good for the port,” he said. “What’s good for the port is good for the state.”