DomPower: Skiffes Creek necessary to avoid rolling blackouts or worse

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What the proposed Skiffes Creek project would look like from the East end of Jamestown Island looking Southeast, according to Dominion Power. Courtesy of Dominion Power.
What the proposed Skiffes Creek project would look like from the East end of Jamestown Island looking southeast, according to Dominion Power. Courtesy of Dominion Power.

Dominion Power has raised the spectre of a total blackout to 150,000 customers on the peninsula as part of a contingency plan in an “extreme case scenario.”

The power company released an update to the Skiffes Creek transmission line project Friday which suggested it was working with partners to plan a “Remedial Action Scheme.” If the project isn’t built, Dominion Power has said it’s forming a contingency plan for an “extreme case scenario, to protect customers from wider, uncontrolled outages,” wrote Dominion Virginia Power Media and Community Relations Manager Bonita Harris.

The proposed $185 million Skiffes Creek transmission line project over the James River will be necessary for consistent and reliable electricity on the peninsula, according to Dominion Power.

The contingency plan includes intentional and controlled electrical power shutdowns. Rolling blackouts are typically a last-resort option for electrical utilities, but in an “extreme case scenario” rolling blackouts would precede the “Remedial Action Scheme,” according to Steve Chafin, director of transmission planning at Dominion Power.

A “Remedial Action Scheme” is an intentional and controlled, “outage scenario” that could be implemented to prevent outages from spreading beyond the Peninsula.

Chafin recalled the 2003 outage the New York Times called “the largest blackout in American history.” The blackout was a turning point in how the electrical grid had been governed and led to certain legal standards by the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation which Dominion Power must abide by.

“If we have that hottest summer day, and everything’s in service the way it’s supposed to be, and we have two component failures, what the RAS [Remedial Action Scheme] does is immediately drop 150,000 customers, about two thirds of customers on the peninsula, so that it [the outage] doesn’t cascade,” Chafin said.

Cascading electrical outages occurred in the 2003 outage in the Northeast of the United States and Central Canada which affected 50 million people.

The proposed Skiffes Creek transmission lines would cross the James River and bring a needed 500,000 volts of capacity to the peninsular electrical grid, according to Dominion Power.

Watch a Dominion Power video simulation of the project here.

Opposition to the project

However, the Skiffes Creek project has opponents, who say that upgrading existing infrastructure, running new lines from a different route, or running the proposed line underground would be more suitable.

A Dominion Power map of the proposed Skiffes Creek transmission line project. Courtesy of Dominion Power.
A Dominion Power map of the proposed Skiffes Creek transmission line project. Courtesy of Dominion Power.

Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the proposal would have a devastating impact on one of the most historically significant landscapes in the United States.

“The National Trust [for Historic Preservation] has been working with outside engineering experts, identified multiple alternatives that avoid crossing the James River, which satisfy load requirements, and can be built quickly and cost effectively,” Williamson said. “Dominion Power should change its plans and save the historic landscape of the James River at Jamestown.”

Dominion Power has made it clear they think their current plan is the best one.

“We looked at a lot of other routes, and it’s the shortest, least expensive, with the least impact from a cultural and environmental standpoint,” said Le-Ha Anderson, media relations manager at Dominion Power.

Chafin said the proposals to run underground power lines underneath the James River would only provide 230,000 volts of capacity to the grid and would be significantly more expensive, costs which he said would be passed on to ratepayers.

“We really want that 500 kV [kilovolt] injection, you can’t put that underwater…It [an underground line] is less capacity. It’s more money,” Chafin said.

Anderson said Dominion Power factors future growth into its decision, and it determined that in the 2020s it would need a new transmission line in order to serve customers reliably.

Coal-fired power plants and other backdrops

Since April 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have been in effect, limiting the use of certain coal-fired power plants that are not upgraded and release more pollution than the upgraded plants. Dominion Power decided to close rather than upgrade its plants. The standards allowed Dominion Power to ask the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for a one- year operating extension, and an additional one year through the EPA. The final extension runs out in April 2017, and Dominion Power has announced it’ll shutter the two coal-fired power units at the Yorktown Power Station.

The State Corporation Commission approved the Skiffes Creek project in late 2013, but opponents of the project, who objected to its crossing of the James River, took the matter to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The court upheld the SCC’s decision to approve the transmission line.

The next phase involved permitting through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We’re now at a point that a line will take 18-20 months to build, and the line is not in place, and we will have to retire the two Yorktown units due to EPA rules,” Anderson said.

Williamson, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agreed that the project would take about 20 months to build, but said a regulatory mechanism would allow additional time.

“Even if all the regulatory hurdles were cleared today, it can’t be put into service before this summer. What needs to happen is a temporary solution.”

The primary alternative proposed by the Trust is to reconductor and reconfigure the transmission lines from Lightfoot to Kings Mill, Lanexa to Toano, Chuckatuck to Newport News, Newport News to Shellbank, and Poolesville to Winchester. The plan would also enable the generator at the third unit at the Yorktown Power Station to supply voltage support, and would reconfigure which transmission lines are energized during summer peak conditions. The Trust estimates the cost of the proposal to be about $78 million.

Reconductoring is an industry term for the process of replacing existing conductors with new conductors, and any necessary structure reinforcements or replacements. 

A secondary and more temporary alternative proposed by the Trust is to run the third unit at the Yorktown Power Station only during peak loads in the summer through 2026, which they estimate to cost $12 million annually.

The Army Corps of Engineers called Skiffes Creek the optimal route, according to Anderson.

Chafin said the area would become the weak link in the area’s electrical grid once the two coal-fired power units at the Yorktown Power Station go offline in April 2017.

“It’s the most uniquely vulnerable region of the transmission grid for Dominion Power, without the generation units at Yorktown,” Chafin said.

Related coverage:

Dominion Files Site Plan for Skiffes Creek Switching Station

Army Corps Determines Surry, Chickahominy Best Power Line Options

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