Ahead of another winter storm likely to cause power outages, Dominion Energy is rethinking how it provides estimates for restoration and lawmakers are eyeing long-term solutions.
The National Weather Service on Friday issued a winter storm watch for the region that will take effect Sunday afternoon. The service is predicting as much as five and eight inches of snow plus a quarter inch of ice with wind gusts between 35 and 45 miles per hour.
Luis Rosa, a forecaster with the weather service, said the snow will be heavy and wet, similar to the Jan. 3 storm, which brought down trees and power lines.
“The big difference is more wind, which could create more problems,” Rosa said.
The snow will likely begin falling Sunday afternoon and then turn to ice or freezing rain by the evening. Motorists are encouraged to stay off the roads Sunday. If they do travel, have a full tank of gas in the car along with snacks, water, a cell phone charger, warm blankets and any medications.
Dominion and other utility companies say they have replenished supplies and are prepared for this round of winter weather.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 3 storm, which caused week-long outages for some people and wreaked havoc on the electrical grid, customers called for more clarity about how Dominion Energy — the largest utility company in the area — provides estimates for when power would be restored. The estimates, based on a formula and past experience, were often inaccurate and changed daily, delaying response efforts from local governments including Albemarle County. Customers also relied on those estimates in order to make contingency plans.
“Our community is resilient, but one of the reasons that our community is resilient is that our community is good at problem solving,” Albemarle County executive Jeff Richardson said earlier this week. “You can’t solve a problem if you don’t have good information.”
Richardson said he plans to ask Dominion for more detailed and specific information about restoration times in order to better inform emergency response plans.
“We have to work with the community to get better information out sooner in these types of events,” Richardson said.
For this storm, Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said the company will hold off on estimates until it has better information about the extent of the damages. That means customers should expect to wait a bit longer for an estimate, but that estimate should be more accurate.
“The customers told us they wanted a realistic estimate, not to have to wonder whether what they were being told was going to change on a daily basis,” Daudani said.
Patrol crews will survey the damage as soon as it’s safe to do so, he said. That initial survey will inform the restoration estimates.
“Bad information is worse than no information,” Daudani said. “I think we can get good information before we make an estimate. It may mean that we’re a little more conservative with those estimates, but I think it’s going to ultimately give the customer better information so they can plan appropriately.”
Parts and materials have been restocked and emergency crews will be ready for quicker response to outages, Daudani said. Staffing will be similar to the Jan. 3 storm when more than 4,800 Dominion Energy crews, support staff and contractors responded along with 900 people from other energy companies.
In a change from the previous storm, crews will be pre-staged near areas expected to experience the worst of the storm, he said.
“They’re going to be in the right spots,” he said. “We’ve already got meals and lodging in those areas, so that they can be deployed in advance. And as soon as the impact hits, we can respond, safely and quickly as we can.”
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, worked during the last storm to provide more information about the outages to customers and is now eyeing long-term, legislative solutions.
She said the General Assembly needs better data on power outages in Virginia. She’s supporting House Bill 414 that would require each electrical utility to provide a plan for monitoring and reporting electric service reliability with the State Corporation Commission. The bill also would require an annual report from the utilities.
“Currently, utilities aren’t required to provide information that we need to diagnose the problem,” she said.
Hudson said that legislature should be cautious about calls for the universal undergrounding of power lines.
“Those investments can be much more expensive than people anticipate,” she said. “Those costs fall on the ratepayers to the tune of thousands of dollars per customer, depending on where you’re talking about.”
Hudson added Dominion’s current contracts provide a strong incentive for the company to invest in large capital projects.
“Because they earn a capital rate of return on those investments, which means they sidestep solutions that can be more effective and less expensive, like tree trimming,” Hudson said.
Hudson also is sponsoring House Bill 588, which would give the State Corporation Commission the power to regulate the rates of publicly traded electric utilities such as Dominion. Under the bill, the commission could adjust rates, provide the utility the opportunity to recover costs and earn its authorized rate of return.
“We need to put regulators back in their proper place,” Hudson said. “That’s all sort of preamble for talking about the third part of this project, which is also a long term priority of mine, [and that] is breaking the cycle of corruption between the General Assembly and the utilities.”
As part of that effort, Hudson is the chief co-patron on House Bill 71, which would ban contributions from public utilities to state candidates. She said Dominion is the largest donor to both parties.
“General Assembly members should not be taking money from companies that they have the sole power to regulate,” Hudson said.
As the community continues to recover from the Jan. 3 storm, Hudson said it’s important for people not to understate that storm’s intensity and damage, which knocked the power out for thousands of people and took down thousands of trees.
“We can’t normalize the kind of storm we saw. We got a foot of heavy, freezing snow 12 hours after it was 70 degrees. That does a lot of damage,” she said. “If our climate crisis is going to continue spurring these really chaotic weather events, then any serious plan for resiliency has to respond to that.”