BARGAINING POWER: Fight over a proposed transmission line puts spotlight on how Dominion Power exerts its influence

Fight over a proposed transmission line puts spotlight on how Dominion Power exerts its influence

Precious few obstacles stand in the way of Dominion Virginia Power building a 500-kilovolt transmission line across the James River. A case before the state Supreme Court could halt it, and it's possible the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't approve it, but otherwise construction is poised to begin in haste.

The company contends the power line is vital to meeting the Peninsula's energy demands. Without it, Dominion warns that brownouts and rolling blackouts are likely, which a review by the State Corporation Commission seems to confirm.

But the proposed location has sparked the ire of many historians and civic groups, as well as some residents of the Kingsmill development, who argue the massive towers supporting the power line will be a blight. Some pilots based at the nearby Williamsburg airport have also expressed concerns about potential flight risks. All would prefer Dominion choose an alternate route, or bury the cables on the James River bed.

It's a common conundrum here, pitting progress against preservation. But the discussion might have been more productive if Dominion made a more convincing case to Virginians that it cared about its neighbors and customers as much as its stockholders.

When Capt. John Smith and some of the first Europeans arrived here some 400 years ago, the picturesque vistas along the James River helped define their first impression of the new continent. Their settlement, Jamestown, sits a few miles from where Dominion proposes to build a new transmission line from a switching station in Surry to another near Skiffes Creek.

The company first offered this proposal four years ago to address its concern that it would not be able to deliver all the electricity the Peninsula will require in 2019.

Since then, tougher Environmental Protection Agency regulations on mercury and toxic material emissions led Dominion to decide to close its coal-fired Yorktown generating units rather than pay for the costly retrofit required to meet those standards. That decision means the time when demand will exceed what the company can deliver will come even sooner.

The power line would address that. But its location has many in the area charged up.

The line would be suspended by nine towers sunk into the James, four of them reaching as high as 295 feet or 10 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty. They would be visible for miles — certainly from some of the region's most prominent cultural sites.

Public officials, local historians, civic organizations and many private citizens have been vocal in their opposition. They have called on the company to consider a longer line, another location, multiple power lines or anything that would protect the untouched and pristine waterway that ferried settlers to these shores.

Dominion, in response, has defended its decision with equal vigor and declined to consider alternatives. Submerging the line would cause more environmental harm than one above water, company officials say. And building two 230kV lines instead of one 500kV line would raise the price tag from about $60 million to at least $310 million. Routes across the river at other points would also be far more costly, Dominion says.

Of course, the pauper's cry rings hollow coming from Dominion. This is a company that reports between $14-16 billion in annual revenue, and never hesitates to open its checkbook when it comes to making campaign contributions. It donated $1.6 million to politicians in 2013 alone.

And it's hard to ignore the company throwing its weight around in the legislature, behavior that does little to endear itself to the general public.

A bill approved last year over the objections of Dominion's biggest consumers, including Newport News Shipbuilding, shielded some of the company's profits from state oversight to avoid a rate cut. Another passed this year exempts Dominion from the state review process altogether.

Company officials frame this agenda as benefiting customers, but it's a strategy that looks out for shareholders above all else. It makes a mockery of Virginia's very thoughtful process of ensuring fair electric rates, and plainly establishes two sets of rules: one Dominion must deign to follow and one for everyone else.

The region's dominant power provider, Dominion serves a vital need for Peninsula residents. What's more, it annually donates millions to Virginia charities and does a great deal of work in communities like this, playing the dutiful role of a good corporate citizen.

But it undermines those efforts when it seeks to rig the system to its benefits or when it refuses to sincerely consider more costly alternatives to a plan that could tarnish these cherished landmarks for future generations.

The region looks almost nothing as it did to Capt. Smith. Another power line over the James, which is a near certainty to be built, will be an undeniable eyesore before it ultimately becomes part of the landscape.

Less certain is how we will view Dominion if or when the lines go up, or what we will think of lawmakers who enable this boorish behavior. Unfortunately, it's doubtful the company or those politicians even care.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
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