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What’s Next: A Path to Undergrounding Our Power Lines

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

An increase in extreme weather events and community power usage has made the need to modernize our power grid’s resilience a pertinent topic of discussion.

For that reason, it is past due for Arlington to update its 15-year 2002 Underground Utility Plan and for the Virginia Legislature to have Dominion spend some Strategic Undergrounding Program funding to underground main lines in urban/suburban corridors instead of exclusively undergrounding suburban/rural tap lines as is current practice.

In Arlington, over one-third of our energy usage comes from electric energy, which is primarily provided by Dominion Power. A known way to reduce energy loss in the process of distributing electricity while also reducing prolonged power outages is to underground power lines.

Virginia Legislature and Dominion Energy’s Strategic Undergrounding Program
How it currently works

All Dominion Power users pay a portion of their utility bill towards the multibillion-dollar Strategic Undergrounding Program that has been authorized by the Virginia Legislature. The parameters are set in Code 56-585.1 A6.

Virginia requires undergrounding project areas average nine or more outages over a 10 year period, that the project doesn’t cost customers over an average of $20,000 per customer and, specifically, the code references upgrades to ancillary tap lines and does not mention main lines which are what typically line major corridors. Dominion representatives confirmed tap lines are what are chosen for improvements. In Arlington, Dominion’s Program financed tap line undergrounding on N. Marcey Road (2016), N. Kenmore Street (2018), 16th Street N. (2018), N. Somerset Street (2020) and another project is expected on N. Kensington. The estimated cost of all four completed projects was about $750,000.

As you can see, these projects are located in leafy neighborhoods and not where a majority of residents live. Dominion representatives stated that the reason behind this choice also lies in that it is easier for their trucks to access main roads than suburban areas during storms which is why there is a better cost benefit analysis for those areas.

Moving forward

Virginia Legislators should dedicate a portion of the Strategic Undergrounding Program towards main line undergrounding. Notably, the relative cost per project would increase and, for that reason, I suggest only a portion of the fund for the highest priority main lines.

Leaving out urban ratepayers in areas passes on these costs to either 1) renters of apartments or office tenants, by way of developers needing to pay for undergrounding to get an approved site plan; or 2) all taxpayers in those urban jurisdictions, by way of local governments needing to put undergrounding efforts on a bond referendum. This creates a negative financial burden on areas like Arlington, Alexandria, Norfolk, Richmond or Virginia Beach from benefiting from this program — adding to already high local rents and putting pressure on local governments for bonding measures.

Additionally, this past week the Virginia State Corporation Commission that regulates Dominion, found that Virginia customers paid Dominion more than $1.1 billion above fair profit over four years and might need to pay back or cut rates to the tune of $312 million. This might be one of many ways the General Assembly might choose to reinvest those funds (as well as investments in renewable energy, etc.).

Arlington County’s Underground Utility Plan
How it currently works

Arlington has two paths for undergrounding utilities outside of Dominion’s program 1) having developers pay for it when they need a special exception during their site plan review process and ultimately passing that cost on to renters; and 2) having undergrounding projects on the bond referendum.

Projects already financed by bonding include an almost $7 million project for undergrounding on Columbia Pike, the Glebe Road and Langston Blvd intersection and surrounding areas, Washington Blvd, and future improvements to Wilson Blvd between Fairfax Drive to Kenmore Street.

For undergrounding during the site plan review process, Arlington uses the 2002 Underground Utility Plan. Senior staff has described the document as being a requirement for no “new” utility poles in those areas and less of a requirement for undergrounding existing lines in those areas, but it is a tool to request any new development undergrounds utilities and the poles as a requirement of site plan review.

Moving forward

Our 15-year plan from 2002 is obviously out of date. We have not come close to realizing those objectives and, to me, the reason seems obvious — it is expensive. If our baseline is knowing that none of our major planning corridors will be paid for by Dominion (the state) since they are “main lines,” then unfortunately the onus is on Arlington to accomplish undergrounding improvements.

Setting expectations that are ambitious and realistic, but also in line with development expectations is important. Specifically, a premeditated evaluation should be done to decide where to wait for a site plan review process to pay for portions of undergrounding, versus what is included in our long-term capital improvement plan, instead of putting it together piecemeal.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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