One of the most sweeping pieces of legislation before this year’s General Assembly involves the state’s regulation of its monopoly electric utilities - Dominion Energy, which services some two-thirds of the state, and Appalachian Power Co., which services customers in the Southwestern part of Virginia.
Traditionally, the utilities were overseen by the State Corporation Commission, a three-judge panel elected by the General Assembly. The SCC would review utility rates every two years and decide if the companies had overcharged consumers. The SCC could require the utilities to lower rates and issue refunds to ratepayers - though the companies still got to keep 30 percent of their excess revenue.
In 2015, though, Dominion and the General Assembly decided the utilities needed protection from the uncertainty of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which tightened environmental requirements. So the legislature passed a law, with bipartisan support, that froze base electric rates for seven years and prevented the SCC from conducting its biennial reviews. It was signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
The rate freeze became a political issue in 2017, when it became clear the new Trump administration would kill the Clean Power Plan. What’s more, the SCC had conducted a review that found the utilities had earned hundreds of millions in excess profits during the freeze.
Opponents criticized Dominion’s great influence in Richmond, where it is the state’s largest corporate political donor. More than a dozen Democrats who pledged not to accept donations from Dominion won election to the House of Delegates.
When the General Assembly convened in January for its 2018 session, lawmakers worked with Dominion to create legislation that would enact a sweeping overhaul of utility regulation. Nearly identical versions have passed both the House and Senate and are now working their way through committees. Here are the key consumer impacts of the bills:
Money back to ratepayers
Dominion customers would likely see their average monthly bill decrease by $6 under the plan. That’s mostly thanks to the following components:
* A $200 million credit to consumers for excess money the utility earned during the freeze. (The SCC has estimated that Dominion actually earned somewhere between $300 million and $700 million in excess profits during just two years of the freeze).
* Rate reductions of about $125 million per year based on the company’s savings from the corporate tax cuts enacted by Congress. This amount will be firmed once the tax code’s full impact is clear; it could change.
* Elimination of a $25 million annual surcharge that Dominion has been levying to cover the cost of biomass-burning facilities.
The SCC would resume its oversight of the utilities, but it would conduct reviews every three years instead of every two years.
The SCC’s next review of Dominion rates would come in 2021 and would look at the years 2017-2020.
But customer refunds and base rate reductions are highly unlikely under the legislation, because of the next category:
Incentives for Dominion
Dominion would be allowed to reinvest any excess profits in modernizing the grid or renewable energy, such as solar and wind, instead of paying rebates to customers or reducing rates.
At the same time, the law would state that making those investments are “in the public interest,” basically telling the SCC that they have priority over keeping rates low.
To double-dip, or not to double-dip?
The mystery at the heart of the legislation has been whether it would let Dominion keep your cash and spend it too. In the Senate version of the bill (SB966), Dominion could both use excess profits for new projects and build the cost of those projects into base rates. An SCC analyst said that for consumers, it’s the equivalent of being given a new car as payment for a debt, then having to take over the payments on the car. Dominion denies that the bill works this way.
In the House version (HB1558), language was added at the last minute that prohibits Dominion from putting those investments into base rates. On Tuesday, a House committee amended the Senate bill to incorporate that change. Dominion now says it supports the new version.
Dominion would boost its EnergyShare program and run it through 2028, providing bill payment and weatherization assistance for customers who are low-income, elderly, disabled or veterans.
The bills also push the SCC to allow Dominion to undertake expensive projects to put utility lines underground. The commission often balks at these projects as not cost-effective, and warned in an analysis of the legislation that it “could potentially result in billions of dollars of additional costs that must be borne by customers in higher rates.” Supporters argue that it will improve the overall effectiveness of the grid and reduce outages.
Large industrial ratepayers would get a 2 percent reduction if they sign an “exclusive supply agreement” with Dominion of at least three years.
Competing bottom lines
Supporters say the legislation would give Dominion (and Appalachian) steady funds to modernize the grid - to make it less vulnerable to both cyberattack and natural disasters - and to convert to renewable energy such as wind and solar. Many environmental groups now either support the deal or are neutral.
Critics - including the consumer protection office of the state Attorney General - say it prevents a realistic chance of rate reductions for some 10 years and guts the SCC’s ability to regulate the state’s biggest monopolies. The alternative would be to simply undo the 2015 rate freeze and let the SCC review all those projects - wind, solar, underground lines - individually.
Wall Street has already weighed in. It likes the proposed legislation. Analysts have boosted their outlook for Dominion stock in anticipation of the law passing and being signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who helped negotiate it.