RICHMOND — With an affirmative vote by the Virginia House on Thursday, the General Assembly has passed a bill that would let Dominion Virginia Power skip comprehensive financial reviews for five years.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), would allow Dominion to push pause on independent scrutiny of part of its books that in some instances requires the utility giant to give refunds to customers or reduce rates. Dominion would retain its power to ask for special permission to raise rates.
Supporters say the measure, which Dominion drafted, is needed to protect investor-owned utilities from what some call onerous proposed federal regulations on coal-fired power plants intended to stem climate change.
Environmental groups at first opposed the bill, but a concession from Dominion to increase its investment in solar energy tamped down their outrage.
Still opposed to the bill are Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and advocates for ratepayers, including the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates, which represents some large manufacturers.
The House passed the bill, 72 to 24, with two abstentions and two lawmakers not voting. Last week, the Senate passed the bill, 32 to 6. The bill heads to the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Del. R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan), who voted against the bill, said lawmakers owe it to ratepayers to sustain the powers of the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities and conducts the biennial reviews that will temporarily cease under the bill.
“Everybody on whatever side of this question said the State Corporation Commission is capable of making this review because of their accounting and regulatory and engineering expertise,” he said. “It isn’t simple, and that’s why we have invested the State Corporation Commission with the capacity to review these complex utilities cases or what is essentially a monopoly provision of electric power.”
Officials from the commission, which has taken no position on the bill, have said the agency can help “smooth out” the cost of compliance with the federal rules through a formal process for rate adjustments that Dominion has frequently used to manage past unexpected costs.
But Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said the bill is needed to freeze part of Dominion’s rates, which he noted are among the lowest in the region.
“Whatever you think about the [Environmental Protection Agency] clean power plan, it’s assigned Virginia a higher goal and much stricter goal than our neighboring states,” he said.
As both chambers debated the bill over the past few weeks, Dominion has changed the bill to garner widespread support from both parties. It agreed to a 2015 financial review and to forgo passing $85 million in fuel costs on to customers.
Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said Dominion’s willingness to ramp up investments in solar power represents “hard-fought modest gains” in what “is still a bad utility-sponsored bill.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center has said the bill helps Virginia “take advantage of job-creation opportunities in solar energy and energy efficiency” to build the economy.
The bill also applies to Appalachian Power, which serves mostly central and southwest Virginia. At the start of this year’s legislative session, Wagner was among 11 lawmakers who owned Dominion stock, but he sold his last week, according to the Associated Press.
Dominion is routinely the biggest corporate donor to politicians, giving about $650,000 to politicians and their causes last year, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.