The sweeping energy regulatory legislation in Virginia that Gov. Ralph Northam rightly stepped in to improve and recently signed deserves celebrating.
Whether you’re an environmentalist concerned about the affects of climate change, a business trying to keep operating costs low or a consumer advocate looking out for low-income customers, this is a historic win that will generate economic and environmental benefits for years to come.
Three key elements of the law make this a victory for all Virginians.
- Utilities will finally invest significantly in energy efficiency, the very best tool to lower Virginia’s rising electricity bills and reduce air pollution, rather than continue the relentless cost increases that have made Virginia’s bills the 10th-highest in the nation. The $1 billion investment utilities will make in efficiency upgrades and programs over the next decade will yield long-term dividends for Virginia ratepayers and our environment.
- Virginia will finally join the American clean energy revolution currently underway, as the law makes a truly transformational commitment to solar, wind and grid technology upgrades that will deliver as many clean electrons to our outlets as possible. The 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy declared to be “in the public interest” under this legislation is enough to power more than 1 million homes. This will be good for both the climate and customers, as solar and wind are often the cheapest energy you can find nowadays and some of the fastest-growing job creators in the country.
- This law finally turns the page on an outdated regulatory model that was putting a damper on our economy and our clean air, with an endless succession of fossil fuel plants that were good for utilities but bad for Virginians’ pocketbooks. Now, regulators are free to approve investments that make better economic sense: efficiency programs such as lighting upgrades and weatherized homes and businesses that lower energy consumption and therefore bills, low-cost renewable energy and grid technology upgrades to optimize the most efficient use of our various resources to lower total costs and carbon and other pollutants.
Even though the legislation returns an upfront $200 million to customers and passes along another $125 million of annual tax savings from the federal corporate tax cut, some remain opposed to the legislation on strict consumer-protection grounds, insisting that all customer dollars over-collected by utilities under the “refund freeze” law of 2015 should be refunded rather than reinvested.
To be sure, the initial bill was unacceptable on many grounds, and even the final version is not perfect. But the bill’s remaining detractors appear to overlook two key facts: Simply refunding every possible dollar to customers would not achieve the same economic and environmental advances this law makes possible. Not only would those refunds not make a significant impact on each customer’s pocketbook but also the investments under this law will achieve far greater results than a one-time credit on bills ever could. Significantly more energy efficiency, renewables and modern grid technology mean that instead of just one lower bill as the result of a one-time credit, Virginians can now see years and even decades of lower costs and cleaner air.
More important, a straight refund and repeal of Dominion’s “refund freeze” law would not return us to some golden age of utility regulation and consumer protection. Quite the opposite: Regulators at the State Corporation Commission have presided over steadily rising bills in the commonwealth, largely through a steady march of highly polluting and often unnecessary new fossil fuel plants. Dominion profited handsomely, but it was at the expense of everyday Virginians — and our climate — all while Virginia fell further behind in America’s modern clean energy economy.
Even worse, the SCC habitually denied the use of energy efficiency programs that would have lowered rather than increased Virginia’s “top-10” highest bills, programs that are already successfully being used all around the country.
This bill turns the page on all of that, including on the “refund freeze” law that Dominion was wrong to foist on a once-tractable legislature. Rather than build the costly and polluting pipelines and smokestacks of the last century, Virginia is poised to deliver 21st-century clean energy and at lower cost.
We worked hard to get this legislation to its current point and look forward to ensuring its promise is realized. But to be clear, our work is not done. Our fight for a clean energy future continues. Renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements, implementation of the Clean Energy Virginia Initiative and comprehensive grid-transformation study are just a few of our next objectives.
And if our utilities fail to deliver on the commitments in this legislation or try to game the system, we will hold their feet to the fire. Until then, we and the environment will be celebrating our victory.
Michael Town is Executive Director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Walton Shepherd is Virginia Policy Director with the Natural Resources Defense Council.