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Power Outages? Winter Storm's Possible Freezing Rain, Heavy Snow Could Hit System

NWS says to expect a possible "few hundredths of an inch" of ice build-up on roadways, sidewalks in Northern Virginia starting late Sunday night.

Northern Virginia could possibly see some power outages associated with the snow storm headed to the area, according to officials from Dominion Virginia Power and the National Weather Service. Patch file photo
Northern Virginia could possibly see some power outages associated with the snow storm headed to the area, according to officials from Dominion Virginia Power and the National Weather Service. Patch file photo
Northern Virginia could possibly see some power outages associated with the snow storm headed to the area, according to officials from Dominion Virginia Power and the National Weather Service. Northern Virginia is under a Winter Storm Warning from Sunday midnight until Monday at 6 p.m.

"If it [the snow] comes in wet and heavy, that's the type of snow that can cause a lot of outages," said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for Dominion Power, said Sunday from Richmond. "We've certainly had our practice this season."

Another enemy of power lines in this type of storm, Norvelle said, is freezing rain. "If we get freezing rain, and icicles start piling up on power lines and trees, over the course of an event, say a quarter of an inch of ice on your system, that's really a big problem," he said. "The most damaging storm that a system can have is a freezing rain event, it is just disaster to a system."

Sunday morning, Kevin Witt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sterling, said that some freezing rain is a possibility for Northern Virginia Sunday night.

The NWS expects "an accretion of freezing rain on surfaces, with a temperature around 32 degrees," he said. The thickness of the ice — "a few hundredths of an inch" of ice — could begin to build up on surfaces as freezing rain falls Sunday night in Northern Virginia. Residents would likely see ice forming a sheen on trees, bushes, guard rails and roadways. The icy veneer would stick around underneath the snow due to freezing temperatures. 

Witt said to expect 1 to 3 inches of snow Monday morning and then "another 6 inches or so" afterward on Monday.

Norvelle said Dominion Power is keeping tabs on the approaching winter storm, with meetings Sunday afternoon with their own in-house meteorology team that specifically looks at how weather could impact the power grid (see video here).

Regardless if it's a heavy or light snow and/or freezing rain, "we have to be ready," he said, adding that "one of the nice thing about these storms," is that the company "can see them coming from a few days away."

"We've got our trucks stocked and our crews ready to respond," he said. "Now we have just got to wait until the storm gets here."

Sometimes it's not even freezing rain, heavy wet snow or damaging winds that down power lines during a winter storm, Norvelle noted. It can be something like a person trying to drive on slippery roads and hitting a utility pole "and then you have a couple thousand without power."

If it appears the storm is going to be quite damaging, Dominion Virginia Power can call on a network of outside linemen to help out. "We belong to a group of other utilities, and we can say 'Hey, can I get some of your crews to come help us?' That's been really helpful; we've helped too, and gone as far away as New Orleans, and we've had crews come help us from as far away as Oklahoma after Hurricane Isabel. There's a whole lot of camaraderie in the industry."

Dominion Virginia Power, Norvelle said, has "spent the money necessary to keep the lights on" in Northern Virginia, with upgrades to its system and trimming trees so they don't fall on power lines during storms. "We have a pretty aggressive program when it comes to tree trimming," he said, "and we have also replaced equipment, the utility phrase is to 'harden the system,' and it pays off when the weather hits."

For more on power outages, Dominion Virginia Power customers can check the utility's power outage page here.

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