Councilors skeptical of Dominion Power expansion plans

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors lit up Dominion Virginia Power representatives last month over the utility company’s plans for running a 230-kilovolt transmission line through Alexandria.

At issue is the fact that the company has not announced where they might put the underground lines. Officials fear the utility will try to run cables from its Glebe Road substation in Arlington County through northern Alexandria neighborhoods to an end substation to be located at the closed GenOn coal-fired power plant.

City Hall would rather Dominion Virginia lay it alongside federal- or state-owned properties like the George Washington Memorial Parkway or Potomac River. But city staffers suspect the utility company is looking for an easy way out.

“The concern I have is that the way it was portrayed to staff was that the easier way to do this is not to face a federal agency or a state agency or a railroad agency, but the easier way to do it is to use city right of way,” testified Rich Baier, head of the city’s transportation and environmental services department.

But Deborah Tompkins Johnson, regional manager of state and local affairs for Dominion Virginia, said the company has only determined a “point A and point B.” They haven’t yet looked at potential routes for the transmission line. The company plans to submit a proposal to the State Corporation Commission by January 2015.

“To say we’re pushing to use the city right of way, that’s just not the case,” Johnson said. “We have a north end, and a southern end, and in between we need to have a route.”

But City Councilor Tim Lovain asked why the utility would consider a route that doesn’t abut major transit ways, citing the need to disturb as few pieces of private property as possible.

“If you’re looking for the least number of parcels disrupted and disrupted residents, clearly if you followed the CSX land’s right of way, you’re dealing with just one property owner and no residences,” Lovain said. “And if you follow the GW Parkway, you know it’s very similar, and along the Potomac River as well.

“It seems obvious to me that you should vigorously pursue those other, less disruptive, alternatives.”

Several city councilors didn’t buy the company’s claims. City Councilor Paul Smedberg noted that Dominion already has an initial cost estimate — about $165 million — for the project, which he took as a sign that something must be in the works.

“I find [not having a route] hard to believe, given your timeline and your ultimate submission [to the SCC] in six or seven months; I find it very disturbing,” he said.

Johnson said the cost estimate is bare bones: It’s just an estimate of building a straight line from Glebe Road to the new substation, which they admit would likely be impossible.

Further stoking city councilors’ suspicion was a February report issued by PJM — a regional utility transmission group — concluding that an influx of computer data centers has sparked an increase in power demand elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

“While we do have growth [in northern Alexandria], compared to areas of Loudoun County and the Dulles corridor, I don’t think people would say they are equal,” Smedberg added. “The areas the report mentioned, I think, would be more classically defined as ‘high-growth’ areas.”

Johnson countered by saying the transmission line and new substation will improve Alexandria’s protection from power shortages. Surrounding jurisdictions might see an improvement, but it would only be a side effect of the project, she said.

“It’s really just the opposite; it is primarily benefiting those in Alexandria with a little bit of Arlington as well, because of the growth we’ve already seen and the growth coming,” she said.

City council called for the creation of a work group comprised of staff as well as business and community leaders to evaluate Dominion’s proposal and its effects on the city.

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