Godzilla never met a transmission power line he liked.
Arcs and sparks crackled when the giant sea monster — apparently immune to high voltage — toppled steel transmission towers as though they were assemblages of toothpicks.
All that beastly ire played heck with the reliability of Japan’s power grid.
Regulators of electric utilities like Appalachian Power require the companies to demonstrate that their networks of power plants, transmission systems — which move electricity at high-voltage over long distances — and distribution lines are reliable.
In January 2014, the State Corporation Commission approved Appalachian’s application to complete a $237 million upgrade in and around the existing Cloverdale substation in Botetourt County.
The Cloverdale station has long been a hub for transmission power lines. From a nearby knoll, an observer who turns a full circle sees transmission towers, high-voltage power lines and their treeless rights-of-way climbing Tinker Mountain and otherwise radiating in all directions.
Transmission lines at Cloverdale carry different voltages: 765 kV, 138 kV, 500 kV and 345 kV. A kilovolt equals 1,000 volts. For comparison, the U.S. standard household circuit has an effective voltage of about 120 and 240 volts.
Appalachian says the Cloverdale project will improve the reliability of electric service in the region.
Irene Leech is an associate professor of consumer studies at Virginia Tech and president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, a consumer advocacy group. Among other things, Leech keeps an eye on electric utilities, including Appalachian and its parent company, American Electric Power.
Leech said the Cloverdale upgrade and expansion reflects a larger need.
“Across the United States we’ve neglected the basic infrastructure of our electric system and we have a backlog of needed investments,” she said. “The Cloverdale AEP expansion is an example of needed work.”
The Cloverdale work began in June 2014 and is expected to continue until mid-2017. Two substations are expanding and upgrading equipment, a brand-new 28-acre extra-high voltage substation is under construction on land long owned by Appalachian, and new transmission lines will tie the stations together.
Some new equipment has arrived by rail because it has been too massive for highway travel. Substations can include transformers to step up or step down voltage, air-break switches that can isolate circuits, voltage regulators, circuit breakers and a host of other equipment.
Calling the shots
Another cheerleader for transmission line reliability is PJM Interconnection. The independent, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit is unknown to most Appalachian customers who flip switches and push buttons and expect bulbs to burn and toast to brown.
Employees of PJM, one of nine regional transmission organizations in North America, have been described as “air traffic controllers” of the power grid. PJM dispatchers coordinate the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states, including Virginia, and in the District of Columbia.
Ongoing research by PJM of the regional transmission grid it manages helps anticipate future needs and problems, said John Shepelwich, a spokesman for Appalachian Power.
Proposed changes by PJM helped move Appalachian and AEP to tackle the Cloverdale substation and extra-high voltage transmission upgrades.
David Wright, Cloverdale transmission project manager for AEP and a resident of Botetourt County, said PJM had identified the potential for future problems with voltage and overloaded lines — issues that could affect reliability.
PJM does not own transmission power lines or power plants, but its managers can call the shots as though they did.
In Virginia, high-voltage transmission lines are owned by companies that include Appalachian, Dominion, Kentucky Utilities and Allegheny Power.
At the Cloverdale substation, transmission lines might deliver power generated by coal-fired or natural gas burning power plants, nuclear reactors, hydroelectric projects, wind or solar. Or the transmission lines might route electricity away from the substation to other substations, where the voltage is stepped down to serve residential, commercial and industrial customers.
PJM’s controllers work in underground bunkers in two control centers in Pennsylvania. In these subterranean quarters, safe at least from Godzilla, dispatchers oversee a power generation and transmission grid that serves roughly 61 million people and includes about 62,556 miles of transmission lines.
Sometimes PJM controllers buy electricity from Appalachian and sell it to Dominion or other utilities in the PJM system, and sometimes Appalachian is the buyer. Controllers can reroute electricity when problems arise and can bring power plants online or shut them down temporarily.
In Virginia, the largest investor-owned electric utilities rely on their own power plants to generate electricity for their customers.
If utilities generate more power than their customers need, they can sell the excess into the wholesale market. Or if they need electricity beyond their capacity to generate it, they can buy it.
Paula DuPont-Kidd, a PJM spokeswoman, said the organization has nearly 1,000 members, ranging from small companies generating power to utilities like Appalachian and Dominion.
For the sprawling, complicated Cloverdale project, Appalachian has hired regional contractors that include New River Electrical, headquartered in Cloverdale, whose specialties include substation construction and maintenance. New River Electrical also has an office in Ohio and has about 1,200 employees companywide, said Johnny Lanning, a senior vice president.
Lanning said the Cloverdale project is one of the largest the company has worked.
“It is a very good project for us,” Lanning said.
Branch Highways, headquartered in Roanoke, has handled grading and excavation.
Appalachian is not alone among electric utilities in its focus on upgrading transmission systems in the name of reliability.
On Jan. 12, Dominion announced plans to spend $9.5 billion in coming years “to expand, secure and upgrade the electric grid in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.” The company said it plans to spend $3.6 billion of that total on transmission lines and substations.
New Jersey-based Public Service Electric and Gas Co., also a PJM member, reported that it spent more than $1.5 billion in electric transmission work in 2014 and plans to invest about $4 billion more from 2015 to 2017.
Who will pay for the work at Cloverdale?
PJM’s board regularly offers utilities and transmission companies the opportunity to compete for grid projects and upgrades. PJM dollars will help pay for the Cloverdale project and so will Appalachian’s customers, Shepelwich said.
“Much of the project has been mandated by PJM as benefiting the whole grid,” Shepelwich said. “Consequently, we bill that cost to PJM and then it would bill back Appalachian Power for our share of the costs.”
Appalachian would then seek recovery of those costs from customers by asking the SCC to approve their inclusion in the transmission rate adjustment clause, also referred to as T-RAC, on customers’ bills.
“The remainder of the costs are shared among the other PJM participants. We don’t have a final figure at this point,” Shepelwich said.
Meanwhile, Leech said consumers and regulators should monitor whether Appalachian’s customers will benefit from having additional electric capacity and ensure that customers “are not funding expansion that will only benefit for-profit sales” on the wholesale market.
Leech said Virginia also should consider adopting new strategies to increase energy efficiency.
At Cloverdale, workers for New River Electrical must have a tolerance for heights. Many of the new style transmission towers, which might be considered graceful compared to existing lattice towers, reach 175 feet high.
Bedford County native and former Virginia Western Community College student Jeff Rawlings, 48, is the lead transmission construction representative for AEP on the Cloverdale project. He said he has worked for AEP for 28 years.
Rawlings and Wright said some AEP executives who toured the Cloverdale project were impressed by the scale and progress of the work.
“Their jaws dropped,” Rawlings said.
Wright’s father, Harold, and Harold’s immediate family left Grayson County in 1928 and, like so many others from the region, traveled the so-called “Hillbilly Highway” to hire on with automobile manufacturers in and around Detroit. Harold married after World War II and David Wright was born in 1953 in Detroit.
Wright said he is glad to be back in Virginia. And he captures in two words what upgrades to substations and transmission power lines mean to him: “Economic opportunity.”