Dominion looks at underground lines

Published 10:05 pm Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dominion Virginia Power expects to apply near the end of this month for approval of a new program that will allow faster restoration after major events, officials say.

The energy company is investigating the viability of putting some of its tap lines — the lines that come off of main lines and go down side streets and into neighborhoods — underground, said Alan Bradshaw, director of electric distribution underground.

“We’re very excited about the program,” Bradshaw said. “It would very well change the way storm restoration goes for generations.”

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After a major storm, about half of the locations where repairs are needed are tap lines, Bradshaw said. The company has been crunching the numbers on the most troublesome locations to determine which lines it will tackle first.

“We’ve got some tap lines that just serve a couple of customers that we go to just about every storm,” he said. “We don’t want to go there anymore.”

The company is still at the very beginning of the process, Bradshaw said. It has yet to apply for the State Corporation Commission review, which is required before the program can start in earnest. The review is meant to monitor progress and ensure cost effectiveness, Bradshaw said.

But, anticipating approval, the company already is pinpointing the projects it wants to do first and will do a handful of projects at first to test and improve the process.

“We have made a significant investment in our electric distribution system over the last 10 years,” Bradshaw said. “It is very resilient day-to-day, and even just through evening or afternoon thunderstorms. The system is much more resilient than it was 10 years ago.”

However, major storm events like hurricanes still pose problems, Bradshaw said. Many tap lines have trees near them, which not only makes damage during a storm more likely but also makes repair more difficult.

“We can either move the trees away from the lines, which has proven to be a little bit difficult, or we can move the lines away from the trees,” Bradshaw said.

About a third of Dominion’s system is already underground, Bradshaw said.

“Most of what we install new is installed underground,” he said.

Dominion will seek to recover the cost of the program from its customers. Once the review is approved — likely sometime next year — customers would see their bills increase less than $1 a month, growing incrementally and peaking around $5 a month.

But everyone will see a benefit, even those not on the underground tap lines, Bradshaw said. The underground lines will allow repair crews to focus on other locations after a storm and get everyone’s power back on faster. They also could encourage more precise and accurate restoration time estimates, because crews won’t have to visit as many locations to survey damage, he said.

“Everybody truly does benefit from this program,” Bradshaw said. “It’s about how many repair locations we’re able to drive off of our system.”

Bradshaw said a list of initial projects includes 16 locations in Suffolk. Customers on the line and with nearby property will be notified and communicated with throughout the project, he said.

“We’ll have to get easements from many of these customers,” he noted.

Telephone and cable companies also will be approached when there is an opportunity for them to put their lines underground at the same time, Bradshaw said.

“Everybody benefits from a faster overall restoration,” he noted.