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.