By Erich Wagner (File photo)
City officials are scrambling for ways to prevent construction of a major electricity transmission line from disrupting residents and inconveniencing businesses.
Representatives of Dominion Virginia Power revealed their hopes of running a 230-kilovolt transmission line through the Port City to city council last month, but gave few hints as to where the cables might go.
Aiming to prevent power shortages in Northern Virginia in the coming years, Dominion wants to build a new substation at the site of the decommissioned NRG (better known as GenOn) coal-fired power plant, and connect it with its substation on Glebe Road in Arlington County.
The utility’s silence just months ahead of submitting its plans to state regulators, from whom the company wants approval by early 2015, has alarmed some city leaders, who fear Dominion will place its wiring in the city right of way as that involves the fewest regulatory hurdles.
City spokesman Craig Fifer called the situation “unusual,” to say the least. Attorneys won’t know what legal recourse, if any, Alexandria has until a route is unveiled, he said.
“Our options will vary based on the specific route [Dominion] proposes,” Fifer said.
In the meantime, the city is encouraging Dominion to reach out to residents for their input on routes before the state regulatory process begins. While that will include a public comment process, it does not come until after the utility’s presentation to regulators.
“They should ask for public input before the presentation,” Fifer said. “We’re saying: Don’t limit yourselves to the [state] process, but use best practices modeled after What’s Next Alexandria. The state process is a minimum, and it’s certainly not what Alexandrians would expect for a project of this size.”
City Councilor Tim Lovain is hopeful that Dominion will heed the city’s requests and attempt to bury the line away from residents and businesses. Putting the lines along a major roadway like the George Washington Memorial Parkway or CSX’s railway could mean fewer headaches for everyone, he argued.
“So far I think they seem to be eager to try to find some comfortable place where we’re OK with it and they’re OK with it,” he said. “[The] chances of getting a good outcome are better if there’s just a lot of communication and collaboration.”
But Lovain admitted that he isn’t sure what the city can do if the utility tries to put the cables under city streets.
“I think we’re on some uncertain ground if it does become confrontational about how far our powers extend,” he said. “I think it’s better for everyone that it doesn’t come to that.”
But City Councilor Paul Smedberg is less optimistic. While putting the transmission line along federal or CSX rights of way seems easier — the utility would only be dealing with one or two property owners — it might be more difficult for Dominion from a regulatory perspective.
“We’ve tried to look at some possible routes and try to figure out what they might be thinking and how they would get [to the NRG plant],” he said. “And at a just sort of simple level, the ones that would be best for the city are probably the most difficult for them. It’s a really, really difficult situation we’re in.”
Similarly, Smedberg said he doesn’t hold high hopes for what the city might be able to do to stop a proposal that goes under Alexandria’s streets, potentially disrupting residents and businesses for years.
“The problem is, I think, like railroads, electric companies could potentially use eminent domain and there’s not much that we could say about it,” he said. “What’s frustrating to some folks is: Didn’t they know this was coming down the pike? Couldn’t they have done this prior to all of the construction at Potomac Yard? At least that way there would a greatly reduced amount of space affected.”