By Karen E. Torrent
We all recall 2012’s violent “derecho” storm that blasted the region, causing massive power outages for 900,000 Virginians, many who suffered for days in the brutal and stifling summer heat. The derecho should have been a wake-up call to everyone — including our state legislators — that Virginia’s electricity system is far from weather-ready.
It seems the alarm didn’t go off. Last month, a sudden storm with 70 mile per hour gusts tested Virginia’s electricity system again, proving it still cannot stand up to severe weather. Some 115,000 customers in Arlington and Fairfax counties lost power for as long as two days.
In talking with Northern Virginia voters this election season, I’ve heard countless people express disgust with the unreliability of our monopoly electricity provider, Dominion Power. At a recent League of Women Voters candidate debate, the audience booed at any mention of Dominion. Ratepayers complain of too many outages, as the power fails frequently in weather events with brownouts lasting for days.
The costs to Virginians and our economy of not being “weather ready” are considerable and stressful. Just in my neighborhood, one family had to toss significant amounts of spoiled food purchased earlier in the day. Another neighbor had to run three gas generators through the night so his elderly mother could power her hospital bed and health monitors. A young mother tried to feed and keep her four-month-old comfortable without air conditioning. Schools in session lost power and had to send kids home. Businesses lost operations and customers and what likely amounts to millions of dollars in revenues.
Dominion’s power failures — and failure of Virginia’s lawmakers to hold Dominion accountable — are unacceptable and avoidable when technology is available to ensure we’re weather-ready and resilient. This is especially important as climate change brings even more violent weather.
Weather resilience for Virginia means more than simply burying — “undergrounding” — power lines. It also means changing Virginia law to break Dominion’s monopoly grip on our on power supply to allow for backups to the current grid. These include localized micro-grids, energy storage and roof-top solar, alternatives that lawmakers have allowed Dominion to ignore, control or reject as it pleases.
If lawmakers freed Virginians to deploy these backup energy sources, residents and businesses could generate their own local power as needed rather than wait for Dominion to get to our neighborhoods. It also would help relieve pressure on crews who work hard around the clock under tough conditions.
Don’t be fooled by the “Grid Transformation Act” the Virginia legislature passed last year. It was co-written by Dominion lobbyists and passed by Dominion-funded lawmakers. No surprise, it’s not transformative in the least. While it undergrounds power lines, the bill defies broad support in Virginia for clean energy modernization and alternatives by failing to mandate any spelled-out renewable energy development. Instead, it creates a vague, carte blanche $10 billion dollar slush fund of ratepayer money for Dominion to invest in whatever it chooses—even old-school, climate-harming natural gas pipelines that it laughingly calls “renewable energy.”
Dominion’s self-serving arrogance is a big problem not just for families when storms strike, but for Virginia’s economy and job-creating businesses that need weather-resilient and reliable power as well.
Recently in a letter to the State Corporation Commission, Adobe, Apple and Microsoft, whose data centers here need reliable electricity service 24/7, have complained about Dominion’s power to control the supply of competitively-procured solar energy and its failure to consider energy storage as a cost-effective and beneficial energy resource, instead investing public funds in more natural gas infrastructure.
Essentially Dominion Power is telling major companies that launch or locate here they can’t install solar to save energy costs and meet their environmental responsibility goals. Not in Virginia. Not without Dominion’s permission.
What can Virginians do? Vote.
This election for Virginia’s legislature — from this past Tuesday’s primary to the Nov. 5 general election is the best chance for voters to voice a clear and powerful message to Richmond:
Stop letting Dominion dictate our energy choices. Open the market to let families and businesses seek clean and reliable energy alternatives. Demand that Dominion truly modernize and weatherize our power grid as we need to prepare for bigger disasters. Return the power over our public utility to the people.
Make the elections a referendum on Dominion. Virginia’s economy, environment and energy future are at stake.
Karen E. Torrent is an attorney and long term resident of Falls Church, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney and staff counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.