Follow Up Conversation with Dominion – Undergrounding Utilities

Neighbors –

Below you will find a Dominion Power underground project update from Steve Burns.  As with all posts on our website, there is a comment section. We encourage you to leave comments on the post vs. sending emails to the neighborhood. I moderate all submissions to make sure spambots are not automating comments on our articles.  This means there might be a delay between when you post the comment and when it actually shows up on the site (typically this is no longer than an hour or two).

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Steve Burns spoke with Jessica Burtner of Dominion (“D”) Friday November 9 to get some more background and wrote these notes.

The main topic of conversation was the possibility of getting the “joint users (JU’s)” of the telephone poles / aboveground power lines to bury the cables at the same time as D. The other JU’s are CenturyLink “CL” and Comcast “C” .

In 2014 legislation passed in Virginia that encouraged D to bury power lines and allowed them via a monthly charge on all customer bills to recoup the costs over 10 years. The surcharges on the bills will start out at less than $1.00 per month and will not exceed $5.00 per month on an average bill. There is no government funding of this project. The legislation did not address anything other than power lines and the goal of the legislation was to improve electrical reliability in Virginia, not to improve aesthetics or get rid of aboveground lines. Telco and cable were not part of the legislation. Therefore, there is no mechanism similar to what D has to recoup the costs involved in burying their lines when Dominion buries theirs (unknown is whether they could simply raise their rates to recover costs).

The power line project is statewide. D has identified their highest outage areas based on multi-year data and Flordon was one of the worst offenders. The upper part of the neighborhood beyond Blackwood has the lines buried already, as does the next neighborhood down the line from Flordon. However the power travels through the aboveground lines at the entrance of the neighborhood and up Broomley/down Tanglewood and Flordon to get to the other half of Flordon and the next neighborhood down on Old Ballard, so power outages caused by those aboveground lines affect the underground lines beyond them.

The poles in our neighborhood are either owned by CL or D. C does not own any poles. Per Jessica, cable companies business model is to piggyback their lines on the poles of the power and telco companies, they pay a fee to the pole owner. When D buries lines that CL or C are still on, those entities will be completely responsible for pole maintenance afterwards.

D has been working on a contract with the other JUs relating to burying all JU lines since (early?) 2014. They originally were hoping to be done already but now they are hoping to be done late next year. The negotiations are complicated because there are contractors involved (eg, D has their own contractors they are paying  that would have to be in any negotiation, what contractor do the JUs use, whose equipment, how are the costs shared, legal considerations,  etc.). Complicating matters further, the lines owned by CL and C do not react to fallen trees like the high voltage power lines–frequently (according to Jessica) you will see trees leaning on phone lines or cable lines without power lines–the telco and cable companies won’t necessarily address this if it is not affecting service. The power company does have to address it . So the motivations diverge in that regard as well.

Another complicating factor is that even if the JUs did reach a blanket agreement to cooperate on burying lines, the other JUs (CL and C in our case) would have the ability to opt out of any individual project in a given neighborhood. So, there is a possibility that if Flordon does not get the requisite easements to go ahead with the project and waits for a JU deal among all the parties, and a deal then does happen (say next year), it could turn out that CL and C opt out of burying their lines in Flordon for whatever reason (economics, etc.) and Flordon could wind up with a power only project anyway.

If the JUs did participate, each utility would need to have their own conduit to bury their lines. The type of conduit D uses is different than the type the other two utilities use. This complicates the ability of D to put in conduit for the other utilities while they are doing their own (which they won’t do in any event because they are legally  not responsible for them and they wouldn’t pay for them), making it easier later for those utilities to come in and insert their cables into the already laid conduit.

I asked Jessica to assess the odds of the neighborhood approaching the other JUs and getting them to cooperate on the Flordon project, even to the point of the neighborhood supporting the funding. Her opinion was that it would be a futile exercise and has all of the complications of the contract negotiations D is already having with the other parties.  If they did agree to do the project, they would have to do it separately since there is no multi party contract in place.

Regarding the project itself:

  • Virtually all affected homeowners have been contacted at this point–48 easements are required.
  • No deadline for responses has been set yet
  • If 100% of easements are obtained, the project would go into pre-construction phase–crews would visit each affected homeowner, locate existing underground infrastructure to avoid damage, etc.
  • The construction phase would follow next–the goal would be to start this in Q3 2016 and finish in Q4 2016.
  • The construction itself would only take a few weeks.
  • Base depth of the conduit will be 36 inches underground, service drops from transformers to individual homes will be 24 inches.
  • After construction is done the restoration phase occurs (eg ground repair, etc.).
  • If a FEW easements are not obtained, D will attempt to do a workaround with surrounding properties to see if they can still get the project done (eg, by going across the street for a stretch to avoid the property that did not provide the easement; of course this would require a different easement from the owner across the street).
  • If more than a few easements are not obtained at any point in the process, D will suspend the project.

Regarding the scope of projects, there are 100’s in Jessica’s area alone (Charlottesville/Albemarle, extending down 81 towards Lexington, etc.) . Projects are characterized as subdivisions, short taps, long taps, etc. There are 5 subdivisions in Charlottesville/Albemarle targeted. If the project is not done now, it will be revisited eventually but she could not guarantee whether it would be next year or years from now. Our neighborhood made the list because it is highly outage prone.

Jessica commented that she completely understands the desire to bury all lines for efficiency, lack of disruption, and aesthetics. Unfortunately D has to look at the project through the lens of power reliability improvement only.

She has offered to return to the neighborhood with others for another meeting and/or to have conversations with affected property owners.

Here is her contact information:

Jessica D. Burtner
Dominion Virginia Power
Electric Distribution Underground
Marketing & Communication Coordinator

Office: (434) 972-6752
Cell Phone: (540) 290-0693
Email:  Jessica.D.Burtner@dom.com

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