Powerless: Trees down, irritation level rises
Between Friday and Saturday night during last weekend's not-quite-a blizzard, 40,000 Dominion Power customers' lights went out in the Charlottesville area. The other major power provider for Albemarle County, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, had between 11,000 and 13,000 households–- one third of its members–- sitting in the dark.
When such widespread, misery-inducing outages occur (like Hurricane Isabel in 2003), the perennial question pops up: Why aren't the power lines buried?
"It costs six times more to put power lines underground," says Dominion spokesperson Dan Genest.
"The state of Virginia did a study and the cost to bury lines throughout the state is $94 billion," says the Co-op's Greg Kelly.
Back in 2003, when 55,000 Albemarleans were without power, Dominion also told the Hook that line burial was cost prohibitive to the tune of"several million dollars a mile."
"It is prohibitively expensive in new subdivisions? " asks attorney Lloyd Smith, longtime advocate for buried lines. "They do it all the time. What about the expense to all the stores and businesses that don't have emergency generators? What about the safety of people in cold houses?"
Even when it's your neighbor's white pines that cause power lines to crash, the electricity providers are responsible for maintaining those rights of way.
"The Co-op has 5,000 miles of power line, much of that overhead and much through rural terrain with trees," says Greg Kelly. "We spend $1.4 million a year in maintaining the rights of way." Co-op customers hardest hit in the most recent storm are in White Hall, Midway and Red Hill.
Kelly estimates "hundreds and hundreds" of trees down. He points to saturated soil, a very heavy snow and wind as factors in bringing trees down.
The Virginia Electric Co-op has a 40-foot right of way, and Dominion's is 30 feet. "If you have a 60-foot tree on the edge of the right-of-way and it falls sideways, it's going to hit something, says Kelly.
"This event is more trees than limbs," says Dominion's Genest. "This heavy wet snow is murder on pine trees. Limb problems are much preferred."
By 11:50am Monday, February 8, 2,688 Albemarle customers and 440 in Charlottesville were still without power. "We have made a commitment to get everyone back on by Tuesday evening," says Genest, noting another storm predicted for that day.
But Theresa Bergen has little faith in power company pledges. She says she was told Saturday when the power went out around noon in her Owensville Forest neighborhood that it would be restored at 5pm. That didn't happen, and on Sunday, again she was told power would be on by 5 o'clock, and she says her neighbors said they were told the same thing. Her power came back around 5– Monday morning.
"We could have gone to a hotel if we'd known," says Bergen. "We can't blame Dominion for the storm," she admonishes. "We can blame them for the lack of truth."
"We understand we're going to be accurate 80 percent of the time," says Dominion director Carl Zatkulak. He explains that when a large area is out of power and is restored, there can still be a problem with lateral lines to smaller groups.
"If the lights are still out, we create new jobs," he says. "There is the potential a customer will get a second or even a third [automated] call if we find additional problems."
And he mentions that Charlottesville will be the site of a pilot "smart grid" program sometime this year. All the meters have been replaced with ones that tell the electric company when customers have power– and when they do not.
At least Bergen, 85, and her husband were prepared with a camp stove, Coleman lantern and coffeepot. "When you've been married 50 years, you know how to be prepared," she says.
Now she just needs to get her phone service back on. "They told me it would be on Monday," says Bergen, "around 5 o'clock."
–updated 10:05am February 9.