Power lines example provided by Dominion Energy

An example of what a controversial power line through the Gainesville area is expected to look like, according to Dominion Energy.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, is now pushing legislation requiring Dominion Energy to bury its controversial western Prince William power line, following through on a campaign pledge he made in the days leading up to the November election.

The utility company is still locked in a battle with state regulators over the 230-kilovolt power line, which is proposed to run through parts of Gainesville to reach a data center in Haymarket. But if Dominion can get permission from the State Corporation Commission to move ahead with the project, Hugo’s bill would ensure that at least part of the power line would be built underground along Interstate 66.

The company is currently hoping to build the power line atop large towers running alongside I-66, but people living nearby have pushed back against that design forcefully over the last few years, over concerns about what it would mean for the environment and local property values.

While a pair of community groups is working to block the project from ever being built,challenging the company’s assertions that the project is necessary to power both the Haymarket data center and stabilize the area’s electrical grid, the power line’s opponents believe constructing it underground would be the most palatable option if it must move forward. That prompted Hugo to promise in late October to introduce such a bill if he were re-elected, and he met that commitment on the first day of the General Assembly’s new session Jan. 10.

“This legislation makes certain that the proposed Haymarket power lines are underground," Hugo, who doubles as chair of the House Republican caucus, wrote in a statement. "I made a campaign promise to find a solution that protects homeowners’ property values and the historical significance of western Prince William County."

Dominion has long resisted calls to bury the power line, arguing it would be prohibitively expensive and difficult to do so. State regulators agreed, initially directing the company to route the project through several different Gainesville communities.

Yet, between opposition from Prince William County supervisors and activists, the company has repeatedly had to turn to other plans, settling on the “overhead” option along I-66. Hugo’s bill would force the utility to instead include the project as part of a “pilot program” aimed at studying the feasibility of underground power lines--contingent on the SCC affirming that there is a legitimate need for the project in the first place.

“Directionally, Del. Hugo’s bill seems to lay out a prudent way to expand our experience with underground transmission lines, which is a goal we can support,” Dominion spokesman Chuck Penn wrote in an email. “We look forward to working with him and others as this bill moves through the General Assembly.”

The legislation would also give lawmakers in each locality where the line would be built a say in the process and mandates that the primary purpose of any project included in the program  involve “grid reliability, grid resiliency or to support economic development priorities.” The Haymarket power line opponents have frequently argued that the project is designed solely to benefit the owner of the data center, a subsidiary of online retail giant Amazon, not improve the area’s electrical service.

Hugo’s bill would also allow for any power line included in the program to be built on overhead towers, if the “estimated additional cost of placing the proposed line...underground does not exceed 2.5 times the cost of placing the same line overhead.” Dominion estimates that building the Haymarket project partially underground would cost $167 million in all; the company pegs its overhead option at $51 million, a difference of $116 million, which falls just below the bill’s standard.

Elena Schlossberg — the executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, one of the groups challenging the project before state regulators — sees the legislation as essentially a “prudent back-up.” She commended Hugo for following through on a campaign promise, when his pledge could have been just “an electioneering gimmick,” though she remains adamant that her group will continue to focus on blocking the entire project.

State regulators have agreed to another consideration of the coalition’s concerns about the need for the project in a February hearing, and they could ultimately decide to cancel the power line construction.

“We believe we have a really good case, and we’re going to Richmond expecting to win,” Schlossberg said. “I will certainly be curious to see how Dominion handles this legislation. Had they, from the very outset, been willing to compromise and put this underground, they would’ve had a transmission line by now. We wouldn’t have been fighting the line itself, which we are doing now.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-13th District, is similarly interested in waiting for some clarity from the SCC before pressing ahead on this sort of legislation.

Her predecessor in the western Prince William seat, Republican Bob Marshall, promised to team up with Hugo on this legislation had he been re-elected, though Roem is no great fan of the project either. She is considering signing on to Hugo’s bill as a co-patron, but she would much rather wait for a vote on the legislation until the Feb. 8 SCC hearing Schlossberg is preparing for.

“If we at least have some direction on how it’s going, it will be easier to support it,” Roem said. “Because, by then, we’ll know if we have a legitimate shot at defeating the project all together.”

Though the bill does make any underground project contingent on SCC approval, Roem worries that passing the legislation before a final decision from regulators “sends the message” that lawmakers expect the project to be approved. Yet she also acknowledges that the regulatory process could take months to conclude, even as lawmakers leave Richmond in March.

Roem said that burying the lines is the “least worst” option for the power line, if it has to be built at all. She has met several constituents with homes that are close enough to I-66 that they would be adversely affected by any underground line as well, so she is not exactly eager to see that design move ahead unless absolutely necessary.

“My top priority is to help the coalition win this case,” Roem said. “But I’d certainly consider working with Tim on this. It would be a sign of good faith that I’m working across the aisle. It’s not a partisan issue. These lines go across properties regardless of party affiliation.”

(1) comment

Cultured2014

the powerline should be buried, it's really a better option and i'm shocked it was not the first consideration but i'm sure money had something to do with it. That being said, the "coalition to save prince william county" is farce, they should just name it "the coalition to prevent towers in my backyard because it will drive down my home value". Perfectly ok to say that and be honest. Some of the "research" posted on their site i.e. EMF's are bad for you, has not been conclusively proven and has actually been debated since the 80's. This is really a simple issue, the towers are ugly so bury the cables and make the electric company and/or end customer (apparently amazon) foot the bill.

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