How good is the electric-regulation compromise worked out between the governor’s office, electric utilities, consumers, and other interest groups? It’s so good, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said today that the average homeowner will see electric rates locked in at 2009 levels “for a long time,” even as Virginia invests heavily in solar power, wind energy, energy-efficiency, and grid modernization.
While some legislators in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee worried that the compromise legislation to end the 2015 rate freeze would allow Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power Co. to “double dip” on earnings invested in grid modernization, Wagner and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield, insisted that they would not.
“There is not an avenue for double charging,” said Wagner. The “reinvestment” model, first advanced by Dominion and subsequently backed by Apco, would plow back over-earnings into grid-modernization projects, enabling the utilities to spend “in the neighborhood of” $200 million a year without increasing rates. Customers will receive more than $1 billion in give-backs and other benefits.
Governor Ralph Northam endorsed the controversial package after a Senate subcommittee made extensive changes to the legislation earlier today. Then Commerce and Labor voted 10 to 4 in favor of the package, advancing the legislation to the full Senate. Opponents of the compromise — strange bedfellows ranging from leftist environmental and activist organizations to a large industrial user group — registered their opposition.
“The goal of that legislation should be simple,” said Northam in a press release: “Give Virginians as much of their money back as possible, restore oversight to ensure that utility companies do not overcharge ratepayers for power, and make Virginia a leader in clean energy and electrical grid modernization.”
The compromise would repeal the 2015 rate freeze, provide immediate relief to rate payers, and restore State Corporation Commission oversight of electric utilities. Dominion would issue $200 million in rate credits to consumers who were over-charged during the rate freeze, and Apco $10 million. Dominion would pass along savings from recently enacted federal tax cuts to rate payers in the form of $125 million a year in lower rates, while Apco would give back $50 million. The SCC would review electric rates every three years, which Saslaw characterized as giving the Commission, utilities and other parties a respite from biennial reviews.
The legislative package would require utilities to invest in $1 billion energy-efficiency projects over the next 10 years, while declaring it to be in the public interest for Dominion to install 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind power, and for Apco to install 200 megawatts of solar. Other favored projects include a battery-storage pilot project, a pumped-storage facility in Southwest Virginia, and extensive upgrades to the electric grid to make it more accommodating to intermittent renewable energy sources, safer from cyber attack, and more resilient in the face of severe weather.
The greatest source of concern was the mechanism by which Dominion and Apco would reinvest excess earnings — no surprise, considering how complex and difficult to understand it is. Under current law, the utilities are allowed to earn 9% return on investment on their assets, with provisions for keeping an extra 30% over over-earnings as an incentive to invest in productivity and efficiency. The SCC reviews the books every two years, and requires utilities to return excess revenues to rate payers. Under the new law, instead of returning 70% over-earnings to rate payers, the utilities would have to reinvest 100% (including the 30% they would normally be allowed to keep) into renewables and grid modernization. None of those reinvestments could be used to trigger a rate increase during the life of the legislation.
“The technology is here,” said Wagner. “The question is, is Virginia going to embrace it?”
For some legislators, claims that the legislation would encourage billions of dollars in new investment while guaranteeing that that rates would not increase seemed too good to be true.
“This is a lot to digest real quickly,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg. If solar is so economical, why does the General Assembly need to declare it to be in the public interest — why not just let utilities make their own best decisions? “If we’re making a social judgment, let’s not dress it up” as a great deal for rate payers, he said.
“When I look at this bill, it appears that any costs that you have with any of these new facilities with solar or wind, or grid transformation, could still be charged back a second time,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta. “There will be an ability to double charge for these projects.”
One charge would be incurred when rate payers are denied a rebate for over-earnings. Utilities would reinvest the over-earnings in grid modernization projects, adding the capital to the rate base upon which the utilities are entitled to earn a profit. Earning a rate of return on that investment constitutes a second charge to rate payers. But the utilities counter that were they not allowed to invest the over-earnings, they would recoup the investment through a “rider,” or rate adjustment clause. In the end, they say, it all equals out.
While the bill advances goals for which environmentalists and activists have been fighting for years — more solar; more wind; more energy-efficiency; a smart, distributed grid; more rooftop solar — several groups opposed the legislation. The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network cited concern about the double-dipping issue as reason for their opposition. Ironically, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, representing poor energy consumers, declared itself neutral on the bill.
But the line-up of speakers in favor of the bill was considerably longer. Environmental groups supporting the compromise included the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Alternative energy groups such as Apex Energy, the Alliance for Industrial Efficiency, Virginians for Clean Energy, and the Virginia Offshore Development Authority registered their approval. Prominent business groups such as the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, signed on as well.