Before the end of the winter storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in central Virginia and put the Commonwealth into a state of emergency last week, 233,000 Dominion Power customers around the state were without electricity in freezing temperatures, including tens of thousands in Charlottesville and Albemarle.
At 10am Wednesday—the morning after the worst of the weather—about two dozen of them were crammed into Atlas Coffee on Fontaine Avenue, one of the few beacons of warmth and light in a mostly cold, dark city.
“Unfortunately, natural disasters are really good for the coffee business,” said Lori Craddock, who owns the shop with her husband Michael Manto and spent the morning handing out hot drinks to customers charging iPhones and laptops. When they walked in the door at 6:40am that day, after trudging up JPA Extended with their kids in tow, Craddock and Manto’s phone was already ringing off the hook with people wanting to know if they had three things: Power, wifi, and java—often in that order.
“People come here for coffee, they come here to plug in and catch up,” Craddock said.
And to grouse in the good-natured way people do when weather delivers us a blow. Along with chatter at the espresso bar about plows and passable streets came an increasingly common complaint since last June’s derecho wiped out power to more than a million in the Commonwealth: Why doesn’t Dominion bury lines to prevent massive outages?
“That’s a great question without a simple answer,” said Dominion Power spokesman Carl Baab. “We’re constantly looking at storm-hardening our system, and undergrounding is one option we evaluate continuously,” he said.
The problem is that it’s expensive—prohibitively so, when you’re talking about trying to bury a network of more than 35,000 miles of overhead lines, he said. A 2005 study Dominion commissioned put the statewide pricetag at $80 billion, which translated to $27,000 per customer.
Some communities might want to shoulder the extra cost, Baab said, but a lot of rural Virginians don’t. Even so, when the company installs new lines in Virginia, “they’re almost exclusively put in underground today.” Maybe that’s because Dominion has started feeling the pain. According to a report in The Washington Post last summer, Dominion’s year-over-year second-quarter net income fell 23 percent after the derecho, from $336 million in 2011 to $258 million in 2012.
The grid relit bit by flickering bit last week, with more than 95 percent of Dominion customers back online by Saturday, the company said—the result of the round-the-clock work of 4,700 crews, including 500 from out of state.
But even a few days in the dark were enough to make some of those customers question the wisdom of the status quo. Just ask the folks at Atlas, who groaned as one when they were finally plunged into powerlessness shortly before noon Wednesday.
“Oh well,” said Craddock, with a shrug as people reached for hats and scarves. “We’ve still got what’s in the pots.”