One of the more absorbing slick magazines in Virginia is out on the streets again. It is the 26-page annual report of the Virginia Electric and Power Co. (Vepco).
The Vepco report probably will never be a hot newsstand item. It's tough to peddle a publication these days that on its centerfold offers not one figure, but four columns of figures labeled, "Balance Sheets."
Nonetheless, as the era of triple-digit electric bills overtakes more and more Virginians, the annual public accounting by the state's largest utility - the seventh largest investor-owned utility in the nation - becomes a more and more important event.
On page 3 of this year's issue is the usual message to stockholders from Vepco's two senior executives, John M. McGurn and T. Justin Moore. To illustrate a point, it is worthwhile to relate their thoughts:
"On the national scene, our nation's economy and the well-being of our citizens continue to be threatened because of the inaction and delay by the leaders of our government in coming to grips with the energy crisis . . .
"Clearly what is needed is a long-range plan to substitute new forms of fuel for those being exhausted and imported . . . Conservation alone will not do the job. These efforts have helped slow down our energy growth rate . . . but that is only half the job. The neglected other half is planning and building the necessary energy facilities to provide employment and economic growth.
"With realistic oil and gas pricing, better utilization of coal reserves and accelerated programs for building and licensing nuclear stations, we should be able to meet our energy needs for the next 30 years. After that, new forms of generation such as solar, fusion and fuel cells may take over. Also, the fast breeder reactor technology should be pursued to solve our domestic energy problems as it is presently doing in a number of foreign countries."
Later, the two executives added the expected plea for higher rates: "The key to the company's future financial strength is adequate and timely rate relief."
What is most intriguing about the statement is its plaintive tone, the appeal to government to do something about energy development and pricing. It is a plea that tells us how far we have gone toward taking major energy choices out of the hands of private economic decision-makers, especially those in regulated utilities.
Not so long ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, Vepco executives like McGurn, Moore and the company's new president, Stanley Ragone, made little noticed decisions with enormous economic implications for the public they serve.
Many of these actions were made in negotiations over railroad freight rates, a major determinant of the price of coal-generated electricity. "First, Vepco postponed the development of power plants at the mouth of coal mines in exchange for lower freight rates based on massive deliveries - unit trains made up of coal cars only.
Later, they decided economics favored constructions of what is now a medium-stred, mine-mouth plant at Mount Storm, W.Va. The company made a modest investment in coal reserves there as a hedge against dependence on one or two coal companies with mines in the area.
The mine-mouth plant, far from electrical customers, hinged partly on development of improved, high-voltage transmission lines.
Finally, Vepco took the nuclear plunge. Notwithstanding the controversy that has enveloped development of nuclear stations, the short-term economic advantage to Vepco customers of the utility's nuclear program has been enormous. Because of the unpredicted fossil fuel inflation, the company's two nuclear units in Surry County, Va., last year saved customers at least $100 million in electricity costs, about 8 percent of the system's total charges for electricity.
Vepco executives were able to make the big decisions, which produced the existing energy system, in obscurity in the 1950s and 1960s because the cost of electricity was low and getting lower. Now, the basic economics of the business has changed. Economies of scale are no longer being realized and every increase in power plant capacity carries with it an increase in unit costs.
Figures in the Vepco report indicate a 91 percent increase in residential electricity costs over the last four years. A typically affluent Northern Virginia family earning $25,000 a year and living in an all-electric home probably is spending 7 percent of its disposable income for electricity.
Although the price is high and rising, it may not be rising fast enough to produce an adequate growth in generating capacity. Even with an increase in demand during the next ten years of only half the rate of the last 20 years, Vepco cannot afford to build plants fast enough. Both the company and its regulators agree it will need good luck and mild weather to supply all power demands on the hottest and coldest days of 1981.
As the McGurn-Moore message says, Vepco believes it needs more rapid rate increases and a more permissive nuclear policy to meet near term demand. The company has abandoned a part of its nuclear program and is trying to back away from its modest investment in the coal business because of what it believes is unwise economic regulation.
Essentially, the company is waiting for the government, state and federal, to make the energy policy decisions Vepco so recently made by itself. For better or worse, the burden has shifted from private to public shoulders.