Flash of insight: Get used to no power

Silent flashes lit up the sky in fast succession, like paparazzi, for a good two minutes. The night was dark, and our power had clicked off about a half hour earlier. I stood at our bedroom window, fascinated by this mysterious pulse. Soon, the flashing stopped, and it was time to get some sleep.

But what was that? I’ve heard of “thunder snow,” where there’s thunder and lightning during a snowstorm. Maybe that was it. I live out in rural Albemarle, but a friend in Charlottesville observed the same phenomenon around the same time. The flashes were nowhere near as bright as lightning, though. And I didn’t hear a thing.

The communal wisdom on Facebook declared that what I had witnessed was transformers exploding. Well, I had seen those flashes around 3am when many people reported losing power, so maybe that was it. But I wasn’t convinced.

Today, after weeks of wondering about this March 6 curiosity and finding nothing on the internet to enlighten me, I picked up the phone and got some answers from Dan Genest, a Dominion Power spokesman.

Dan’s best guess was that what I saw was flashing from multiple instances of falling trees making contact with power lines. He said that transformers can, indeed, explode, but it’s rare during a snowstorm, and much more likely during a summer electrical storm.

So, I hadn’t seen transformers exploding: I’d seen power lines shorting out. Lots and lots of power lines, zapped by downed trees, leaving many thousands without electrical service.

(I am at a loss to explain why so many snow-laden trees happened to tip over at nearly the same time. Was it a couple of strong wind gusts? Beats me.)

What happens, Dan said, is a tree leans on a power line, and creates a short circuit. The result is a flash, perhaps magnified by low clouds and falling snow, as current flows out of the line and through the tree to the ground – and someone loses power.

Once the tulips started pushing up through the soil, I thought I could happily suspend my worries about losing power. It’s largely a winter phenomenon, right? But the memory of last summer’s Derecho lingers, with its week-long power outage during a wicked heat wave, and I'm left wondering what challenges the coming months and years have in store for us.

Surely, there’s something to be done to prevent the loss of power in storms. Why don’t they bury all the lines? Why don’t they do a better job of maintaining the right-of-way, and keeping threatening trees away from the power lines?

The good news is that, in new subdivisions, power lines are almost always installed below ground. The bad news is that, according to a 2005 Virginia State Corporation Commission study, the cost of burying the existing (as of 2005) 96,830 miles of Virginia’s electric distribution lines would be $83.3 billion.

That works out to about $27,000 per customer. Not a surcharge I would like to see on my electric bill.

So, forget that.

But what about better maintenance of the right-of-way around the electrical lines? Dominion Power’s right-of-way is 30 feet. That’s 15 feet on either side of the lines. Think about it: If a big tree is 15 feet away and falls toward the line, chances are someone’s going to lose power. Even with a well-maintained right-of-way, trees just beyond the 15-foot line are a constant threat to our power supply.

Well, maybe we’ll get lucky, and have fewer storms. Could happen, right? Not likely, according to a depressing section on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, where they project the ways in which our climate is likely to continue to change over the coming years. Here are a few highlights:

· Heavy precipitation events will likely be more frequent.
· The intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase as the ocean warms.
· The strongest cold-season storms are projected to become stronger and more frequent.

My thoughts keep returning to that 3am display of silent fireworks, when many thousands of Albemarle residents were suddenly without heat, light, and running water.

With a long-term forecast that foresees stronger storms to topple trees and zap our power lines, the best we can do is be prepared for self-reliance with alternatives like generators, woodstoves, canned food, and bottled water.

Welcome to the new normal.

Read more on: janis jaquith


Somehow when I read the Headline I knew this would lead to more climate change propaganda.

Add to this the fact that Charlottesville customers are notoriously horrible about letting the power company cut trees.

I've had to get used to losing power once I moved to Virginia. I no other place that I've lived has the power gone out so much, and are the people so docilely accepting of it. This writer can try to blame global warming, but I think it's a combination of incompetence and laziness on the part of the power companies, and the passive acceptance by the power customers that allows for this situation to persist.

Living the country is a matter of trade offs. Since so much of modern life is now dependent a constant stream of electrons it seems like a matter of personal responsibility to properly prepare for the occasional interruptions. In new subdivisions power lines are buried- we need to encourage more pf this behavior in the city as well. Perhaps the power company would help subsidize a home owner, who agrees to pay to have their line buried. Get a whole neighborhood to do this and perhaps the power company pays to have the main line buried. Do nothing and you just get to whine.

The power companies are not the ones to solely blame. Ever try to cut down a large tree in the city? While I'm not trying to make it easier to do so that reluctance is one of the reasons the problem will endure.

Wet spring snows do big damage because many trees have budded and make it easier for snow to collect in those branches-it's a simple matter of physics. I had maples get much damage because of this and the oaks were still in winter mode with no buds and suffered very little damage.

If you feel that an interruption of the river of electrons is unacceptable then buy a generator for those time you will be without or move closer to a more secure grid. If you choose to live far from the main grid and do nothing to prepare then cursing the darkness is an inevitability.

I grew up in upstate NY where bad storms (both snow & rain) were the norm. I never remember being without power as much as I have been without it in Albemarle. It seems that every time the wind blows down here, power is lost for days.

This is what happens when you build Mcmansions by the thousands in remote areas. They can bury all the lines they want in subdivisions, but that won't help with the high voltage multi-phase distribution lines that transport the power to those subdivisions. With 19000 volts phase-to-phase and 34000 from any one to ground, these lines need serious insulation and protection from intrusion by digging. The cost of burying the 3 phase high voltage lines just won't cut it with the far-flung patterns of dwelling in places like Albemarle County. To ensure more reliable power supply, the rights of way need upgrading so that any tree high enough so that the arc of its falling intersects a power line would be cut down or simply topped. This would require common-sense planning with legislative backing. The chances of this happening in Virginia are right in line with hell freezing over....
If you live in the country and rely on a well for water, you need to spend on a properly installed automatic back-up generator and a sufficiently large propane tank to run it. The realtors and developers who shill these isolated properties never tell the unfortunate buyers what they're going to deal with when the power goes out for a week at their pretty houses and the toilets don't flush....

Before you get all wrapped up in the wonder of buried lines, they aren't much better. We live in a subdivision near Fashion Square mall with buried lines and lose power all the time. Those places are only as good as the lines that feed it. We have lost power 6 times in the four years living here!

And during the Derecho, we were out for a week due to the discovery of a line broken underground. Dominion power said that they had to deal with above ground issues before below ground and those took specialized crews. There is only ONE of those crews in Central VA! All fall long they eventually replaced all of the underground cable in our neighborhood. So winterr comes and we lose power again on the March 6 storm.

I am convinced the only solution is for me to buy a generator because I know if I buy one, we will NEVER lose power again!

Where I live we have Rappahannock Electric. There were outages with the derecho, Sandy and the March 6 storm, but none lasted as long as what some people were saying happened in Albemarle County. March 6, power went out we morning hours that day, back by early pm Friday Mar8.
With Sandy, only out slightly over 24 hours.
By contrast, from Hurricane Fran in 1996, out for over 4days-and this within minutes by footy from Downtown Charlottesville.
Accepted fact that when I moved out to the boonies, might be power outages that would last longer than in the city, thats just how it is.
Hell, my ancestors not too many generations back lived their entire lives without electricity and all this stuff we feel we absolutely must have now. I am not going to dishonor their memories by whining when I can't go online or use a microwave.
Yeah, its a hassle, particularly with the no water situation. But you just cope, and whats more I don't own most of the stuff in those "emergency kits" they recommend. Just suck it up, grin and bear it, as they say.

It seems that in the 10 years I have lived here (Whitehall) the power outages are more and more frequent, and longer in duration over the past 3 years than in the preceding 7. So we've learned to stock bottled water for drinking, and we keep several 5 gallon buckets of water handy to flush the toilets. The range is supplied by gas, so we can cook. During the derecho outage, we finally packed up our refrigerated foods and took them back to the hotel, where we put on a big cookout for all those guests who were stranded and staying at the hotel. In the winter, we simply put refrigerated items in coolers, packed with snow.

Generator? Doesn't seem to be an economically sensible move. Estimated cost for a turn key job is $4,000.00. For that kind of money I can stay at a hotel for a long time.

C'est la vie.

I wish the Dominion Power CEO would put them lines underground. But you gotta maintain shareholder profits as well as maintain his Bentley Continental GT.

If idiots like Janis were the norm, we would never have even discovered electricity. Be thankful for what you have you old coot.

A generator increases the resale price of your home. and it's money well spent if you have children, or have a deep-freeze or a second fridge full of food. I have a whole house propane generator and love it. we only have about 40% of our house electronics hooked up to it in order to save propane, but man I love being able to watch movies, flush the toilet, take a hot shower, recharge my cell phone, turn on the AC or heat to a moderate level, etc...

Must be tough for a liberal wing nut like Janis to have to write those words... "self reliance."

Good column, Ms. Jacquith. Interesting that the rude right wingers in these comments have adopted macho sounding names. Compensating from some shortcoming that has nothing to do with electricity, no doubt.

Mention of putting items in the snow in a cooler reminds me of something that happened when I was a kid. Our fridge died one winter and as my family was short of money as often happened, some delay in replacement.
But it was a bitter cold winter and so perishables went into an outbuilding for storage, cold, but protected from raids by critters.
And when I was really small, my family had one of those oldfashioned iceboxes, the kind that used a big block of ice.
Some years ago, think there was a story in the Progress about the days when the ice man came around and sold ice to folks. And i have read about how in the old days when ponds froze over, blocks of ice would be cut out, and stored covered with straw in a dark barn. Interesting times!

Long ago I lived at the edge of the county last on the line and the last on. Dominion VA Power was behind by 5 years on clearing trees for their "right of way" and our power always went out. The wind would blow and we were out for days. I bought a kerosene heater because the house was entirely electric and never had to use it. They had cleared the trees that spring and we rarely had an outage after.

The first heavy snow of March, we were out for 29 hours and I consider us lucky. We did notice something though. Dominion Power worked until about midnight and then left and came back. Obviously they have resourcing issues? Used to be, they had shifts and would change over and work 24/7 until all power was restored.

In the neighborhood I live now, older, lots of older trees - the lines are not cleared 15 feet back at all. We purposely removed trees that were near the power lines. We have nieghbors that have planted trees right under power lines. If the trees come down, Dominion Power not only cuts them down to restore power but removes them. I think they should charge the landowner for that service! Perhaps more would be more cautious where they plant that spruce?

Looking into a generator too, add to the resale value of my home and I do believe global warming is happening. Anyone who doesn't is a damn fool.

@ChrisFitzGerald...I am not a bedwetter and I do not have a macho name! There ya' go.

It is quite interesting that the writer of this article--a lefty by most accounts--is also a tree-hater. She would like the trees killed more than 15 feet from the power lines AND she complains about neighbors planting trees (see previous drivel in The Hook). It's refreshing to see a liberal supporting the destruction of a surely renewable resource for the convenience of urbanites who decide to move to "the country."

As for the author's circumlocution (she could have dispatched with her technical description and gotten right to her Gore-ish nonsense well before the end of the essay), would I really go to any administration's version of the EPA for objective information on global warming? Only a government worshiper would base her thesis on such bias.

On an editing note, please send me your essay next time so I can redline that weak, hackneyed last paragraph. Anyone using the terms "new normal" should have their knuckles smacked with a ruler.

R.I.P.: Roger Ebert (now HE wrote some great essays!)

Liberalace- Regarding the trees just beyond the 15-foot right-of-way: I don't ask that those taller trees be taken down. No doubt, the cost would be prohibitive to remove them all. (But, at the Dominion Power site, they note that they have the right to remove those trees. Not the obligation, apparently, but they may choose to do so, if certain trees appear to threaten the power lines.) My intent was to call attention to the fact that certain trees beyond the right-of-way will, sooner or later, interrupt electrical service. Regarding long-term climate forecasts, if you could post a link to a source you find to be more credible than the EPA's, I'd be happy to check it out. Namaste.

Dominion needs to start burying some of these hideous cables strung out around the county, perhaps they can bill the cable companies and bury their contribution to the spaghetti network at the same time. They can start by priortising the ones that consistently fail. The huge financial cost Dominion often throws out any time one suggests burying the cables is predicated on burying the lot in one go which is not what I would propose. Dominion needs to have a yearly program for burying the worst affected areas. I have never lived in an area that loses power as consistently as Albemarle County, we should not accept this level of service from any provider. Where are our town planners and politicans on this, why are they silent?

1) virtually every hometown paper is full of people who claim their town is the worst ever for power losses.

2) A 55 gallon drum is about 20 bucks and a hand pump is another 30 so for 50 bucks 55 gallons will give you about 25 flushes.

3) A generator is certainly less than 1000 bucks and most well pumps can be confiugred to have a plug installed in the line (like ends of an extension cord) and you have water.

4) The power company would love to hack away as much as you let them, just look at wehat they do when there is a big storm, they take down as much as they can blame on the storm.

5) In most older cities and Counties (DC area) you need a permit to cut down a tree and there must be a compelling need like ... its dead...with no chance of recovery.

6) Tree huggers demand tree replacements whenver trees are taken down and they plant them right underneath the existing power lines. (then blame the power company when they grow up and break the line.

7) Global warming is a mixed bag. More people die from cold than heat.

So your saying trees and power lines dont mix? Serious news here. Insightful even. But I must agree with Janis on one thing, Dogfish Ale makes a seriously good beer called Namaste. Weird, I had her pegged for a Komucha and white wine chick.

carry on.

@JIMI HENDRIX...If you lived long enough to really have some deep talks with George Harrison, he would have told you "namaste" is a Hindu greeting (kind of like Aloha in Hawaiian). Oh, and sorry to Janis for not placing my apostrophe to show the true spelling for those native Pacific Islanders.

Jimi, you certainly may keep your white wine stereotype of Janis. The "namaste" closing of her entry certainly fits our correct visions of the classic ones around these here parts: Free Tibet license plate, Coexist bumper sticker, I suppose now a red equal sign (as soon as the stickers are available, some type of dog bumper stickers. You know, the works. She envisions a world where public schools teach everyone how to say "sayonara" in other languages so we can mesh with our bros and sisses in other cultures. Don't worry about civics and history, though...you can just forget that!

If I counted all the bumper stickers on bedwettermobiles in this city, I would go a long way to tracing the increased use of plastics and polyvinyl in this ever-warming climate.

Now, 'scuse me while I kiss the (polluted) sky!

R.I.P.: Mal Evans

@JIMI HENDRIX...If you lived long enough to really have some deep talks with George Harrison, he would have told you "namaste" is a Hindu greeting (kind of like Aloha in Hawaiian). Oh, and sorry to Janis for not placing my apostrophe to show the true spelling for those native Pacific Islanders.

Jimi, you certainly may keep your white wine stereotype of Janis. The "namaste" closing of her entry certainly fits our correct visions of the classic ones around these here parts: Free Tibet license plate, Coexist bumper sticker, I suppose now a red equal sign (as soon as the stickers are available, some type of dog bumper stickers. You know, the works. She envisions a world where public schools teach everyone how to say "sayonara" in other languages so we can mesh with our bros and sisses in other cultures. Don't worry about civics and history, though...you can just forget those!

If I counted all the bumper stickers on bedwettermobiles in this city, I would go a long way to tracing the increased use of plastics and polyvinyl in this ever-warming climate.

Now, 'scuse me while I kiss the (polluted) sky!

R.I.P.: Mal Evans

Those red equal signs are really pretty gay if you ask me.

These comments sections are like a bar-room discussion sometimes, in that uniformed "opinions" are equal in value to facts..
The question of underground power lines typifies this. Folks are not aware of the wide variations in voltage across distribution systems and the technical problems with underground high voltage lines. It is not a huge challenge to bury local intermediate voltage lines in a place like Forrest Lakes where transformers drop voltage to a few thousand and the cables can run from transformer pad to transformer pad with basic insulation techniques. This works for distances of a few hundred yards, but for longer distances so much energy is dissipated through resistance losses that nothing is left for the end user. Transporting power from the big transmission lines (such as those found crossing Georgetown Road) involves stepping down from the extreme high voltage of those lines (probably 600KV) to an intermediate level which is still too high for burial without elaborate and expensive insulation and high security around transformer pads or vaults. Running underground lines of this sort to places like Free Union would be fiscally prohibitive and please don't talk nonsense about "making the utilities pay" because they get the funds to pay for all their activities from their customers as all business entities must do. If you live in Hickory Ridge and wouldn't mind your McMansion's current average electric bill to go from $300/month to $2500/month in exchange for the enhanced reliability of underground lines, AND you can get everyone else on that distribution trunk to sign on, then have at it. Until then places like rural Albemarle will be served by overhead lines. Now overhead lines are not intrinsically unreliable. Surges caused by lightning will blow fuses (this is what the average drone sees and misinterprets as "transformers exploding"), but don't usually cause serious damage. These outages are local and quickly remedied by fuse replacement. The real problem with overhead lines has always been trees and that can be remedied faster and cheaper by far than trying to bury the lines in a place like this where there are many thousand miles of high voltage (well, actually intermediate if you consider 60KV intermediate) lines running through woods. Existing power company equipment (some may recall seeing very long- boomed equipment with rotary saw blades on their ends last summer) could be used to "chamfer" the tree heights extending outward from the existing 15 foot right of way distance. Topping trees doesn't kill them and would take care of most of the outages due to falling trees such as experienced last July and this March.
Now as to generators, yes you can buy a 5000 watt "contractor generator" at Lowes for less than $1000 and jack leg wire it into your service panel to run a few lights and your well pump, maybe the fridge as well. But that is risky and you'd better know what you're doing lest you get hurt or worse..A company like Never Dark will do a "turn key" installation of a 15-18 Kilowatt standby genset for $7000 or so, but that presupposes you already have a prpane tank at your house. That would be safe and reliable. You could buy and install the same thing for $4000 if you did the work yourself, but better know what you're doing 'cause it isn't an easy job.
But back to the outage problem. Chances are nothing at all will be done to change the way things are, so those of you who live in the country best resign yourself to power outages, some years none and some years lots. The last 12 months have been unlucky times for us. Since 2003 I have aggregated 16 days without power at my residence, 8 of those since last June. I don't include outages of a few hours up to overnight in that calculus.At a downtown location I own, there have been 2 full day outages and a few multi-hour outages. In the city there is a direct correlation between "urban forest" locations like Rugby Heights and long outages; some of those neighborhoods have had week-long outages during that time period.
Deal with those scuzzy trees and you deal with the outages..

@AngelEyes...I cna always rely on posts here to fuel my Scrabble vocabulary...thanks for "chamfer."

R.I.P.: Euell Gibbons

Another alternative is living off the grid(which does not necessarily mean living without electricity). Countryside magazine did some articles on that a few years back that might be worth researching.

"Jimi, you certainly may keep your white wine stereotype of Janis."

I may not agree with her most of the time but I find her articles worth reading. I hope she stays white wine just to keep it interesting.

Underground power lines? HA! You all are crazy.

Dominion Virginia Power more times than I can recall when I lived further out that I had to go out and direct the workers where the lines were located - and they were ABOVE the ground. You want them to repair lines underground? And what happens to lines underground? Lets see rot, water damage, animal damage, the freezing and warming may also cause damage.

Point is we all are more dependent upon electrical power than ever. Give us a day without Facebook or email and we have withdraw symptoms.

As for the "mixed bag" about global warming - the experts all agree our environment is being impacted.

Storms have increased everywhere.

When my mother's family moved here from the midwest they escaped tornadoes and huge snow falls. Today - we have tornadoes here too, what is up with that?

our home has a tulikivi soapstone furnace for heat, plus a cast iron stove in the living room which we can cook on. We also put photovoltaic panels on the roof when we bought, and added a solar battery backup system so the well, freezer , fridge, and some outlets to power our internet, lights, and tv work. It is a matter of being prepared if you choose to live in the country.