Op-Ed: Robert M. Blue, Dominion Energy Power Delivery Group

For most 20th century electric customers, expectations were pretty basic. Utilities had a few simple missions. Keep the lights on. Restore service as quickly as possible after a storm. Offer reasonable and affordable rates.

Those fundamental concerns are still real and valid. At Dominion Energy Virginia, we believe we have done a good job of meeting them. But across the nation and here in the Commonwealth, customers in the 21st century also have new and urgent expectations – expectations that demand a transformation of the electric grid.

Customers want a system that advances our ability to harness the renewable power of the sun and wind to produce electricity. They want a system that offers them new tools and better information to help them manage their energy usage. They want a system that offers advanced protections against the potentially devastating threats posed by cyber and physical attacks. And since even the shortest disruptions can damage their ability to work, communicate and operate their homes and businesses, they want a system that holds outages to a minimum and  accelerates restoration.

This winter, Virginia has the opportunity to launch that transformational change: the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, now before the General Assembly.

Introduced in both the House of Delegates and the Senate with bipartisan support, the legislation  offers a new mechanism – subject to rigorous regulatory oversight – to transform the state’s electric grid, promoting the development of renewable resources and enabling the system to better handle the power they generate. The legislation would pave the way for a more secure, reliable and efficient grid. And its goals are consistent with those of our customers: in a survey conducted in May 2017, more than 80 percent of the customers contacted endorsed modernizing the electric distribution system to support efficiency, reliability, security and renewable energy.

Currently, no  mechanism allowing Virginia utilities to launch such a transformative program exists in state law. The legislation fills that void, authorizing utilities to file detailed grid improvement plans for review and approval by the State Corporation Commission. The Commission would conduct periodic proceedings to scrutinize the progress and confirm the objectives were being met. And the program would promote continued rate stability for homes and businesses: the legislation envisions that a large portion of the financial support for grid transformation and renewable energy development would come from rates already paid by Virginia electric customers.

Additionally, the legislation now before the General Assembly calls for a series of bill credits and rate reductions, effective as soon as July 1, further ensuring that the price of electricity remains affordable and reasonable for Virginia customers.

Do these transformative programs work? Legislators, regulators and utilities in other states obviously think they do. In 2016 alone, according to the Edison Electric Institute – the electric industry’s trade association – U.S. utilities spent almost $53 billion on grid modernization and security initiatives.

The recent experience of utilities in Florida and Texas also provides reassuring answers.

Since 2006, with the support of state regulators, Florida Power and Light has invested nearly $3 billion to build a “stronger, smarter, and more storm-resilient energy grid,” as the Edison Electric Institute recently put it. FPL’s efforts to modernize and harden the system are given much of the credit for the quick restoration of power after Hurricane Irma struck the state last September.

By the end of the first full day of restoration work, power was back on for approximately 2 million FPL customers – more than 45 percent of all those impacted by the storm. FPL said it was able to quickly mobilize its restoration efforts due to precise information provided by “smart” meters and other digital devices on the distribution system. The data helped FPL pinpoint damage sites, dispatch repair crews, and coordinate the massive repair efforts, which ultimately involved workers from 30 states.

Weeks earlier, as Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston with up to 60 inches of rain, CenterPoint Energy used the “smart” grid technology it had deployed during the last few years to accelerate the analysis of storm-caused outages, isolate problems, and restore service. The utility’s efforts to keep the lights on in Texas during and after the history-making storm won widespread praise.

Backed by the grid transformation act, Dominion Energy believes we would have the tools we need to launch and maintain a stronger, more resilient, more renewable energy-friendly distribution system – a system that meets the legitimate demands and expectations of our customers. We strongly support the legislation.  And we urge the Assembly to approve it – a step that would bring a stronger, transformed 21st century energy grid a step closer to reality in our Commonwealth.

Robert M. Blue, CEO

Dominion Energy Power Delivery Group

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