Category Archives: Regulation

Economic Development Requires Grid Transformation

by Todd P. Haymore

Building a more diversified economy and regaining Virginia’s status as best for business were the overarching goals during my time as Secretary of Commerce & Trade under Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration.

Working in partnership with hundreds of companies, the General Assembly, regional entities, and colleagues in federal, state, and local governments, we were successful in our efforts to build a new Virginia economy, one less reliant on federal spending and more focused on private sector investment.

I have great confidence the momentum of the last four years will continue under Gov. Ralph Northam.

One way to help keep the positive results going is for state lawmakers to take steps needed to invest in the infrastructure of tomorrow. The Grid Transformation & Security Act of 2018 is an opportunity to address one of the state’s key economic building blocks and ensure we are best positioned for future investment, job creation, and prosperity.

Supported by state legislators on both sides of the aisle, this comprehensive energy policy package ensures a continued supply of clean, reliable, and affordable electricity from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power for powering modern businesses.

Stakeholder input, which began last year, has continued during the current legislative session to ensure the proposal balances these needs with consumer protections and regulatory oversight. This work has led to greater immediate savings for customers, more opportunities for refunds and rate cuts, and an increase in State Corporation Commission reviews. The recent changes have been incorporated into both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

During my time in Gov. McAuliffe’s cabinet, we worked hard to keep Virginia at the forefront. We traveled the globe to open new markets to Virginia’s products and attract foreign direct investment. We promoted tourism, lured new employers, and supported existing businesses, which generated approximately 70 percent of the more than 200,000 jobs created from 2014-2018. The results included a record $20 billion in new capital investment, a drop in the unemployment rate from 5.4 to 3.7 percent, and significant increases in exports and tourism spending. Forbes, CNBC, and Site Selection magazine recognized the Commonwealth with top ten rankings for business climate.

Make no mistake about it, the affordability and reliability of energy is a key component of the site selection process.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s electric infrastructure is no longer keeping up with the pace of modern business innovation. Originally designed to take electricity one-way, from the power plant to your home, it wasn’t built to accommodate private solar generation from rooftop panels or spikes in demand from electric vehicle chargers.

As new technology emerges, so have the accompanying threats, which have been foisted upon our aging electric infrastructure. Cyber and physical threats are growing more complex, and frequent. Using secure communications networks and devices along with hardening for circuits and substations gives energy companies the ability to know with greater accuracy what is impacting their system.

With the influx of renewable energy sources in Virginia, come challenges we have never faced, or even imagined. A modern, or smart, grid would make it easier to continue the exponential growth of renewable energy needed to meet the clean energy demands of high-tech firms and continue to shrink the carbon footprint of residential customers.

The regulatory framework also needs to evolve. Policy experts, lawmakers, and stakeholders are working to redefine the current structure to ensure utilities can undertake a project of this scope without hiking rates on customers.

The Grid Transformation & Security Act allows investments to modernize the grid and expand the Commonwealth’s use of renewable energy primarily through existing rates. And it provides customers with bill credits, rate reductions due, and elimination of existing surcharges.

In short, I believe lawmakers want to ensure the costs of this transformation will not result in higher rates which would impact residential customers and hinder economic development. Indeed, transforming the grid is a necessary step to pave the way for the continued growth of a new Virginia economy.

If the General Assembly doesn’t act, others will overtake us and gain an upper-hand in retaining and recruiting businesses and the thousands of jobs that accompany them. Virginia can’t let this happen if we want to continue building a more diversified economy, and regain our title as the best state for business.

Todd P. Haymore served as Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade under Governor Terry McAuliffe from 2016 – 2018. Prior to that, he served as Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry under Gov. McDonnell and Gov. McAuliffe from 2010 – 2016.

Wall Street’s Perspective on Virginia Rate Re-regulation

Ken Cuccinelli

What follows is a letter from former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to members of the House of Delegates two days ago. His discussion of the Wall Street perspective on electric rate regulation adds a new element to the debate, so I publish the letter here with his permission. — JAB 

Dear Delegates,

One of the benefits of being Virginia’s Attorney General is the opportunity to pick various areas of the law into which one can “dig in.” After working on energy projects in the private sector prior to becoming Virginia’s A.G., I was enthusiastic about digging into electricity rates. I learned a lot, including learning about my own mistakes when I was in the General Assembly.

One other thing I learned was that while the issue of electricity regulation is the most complicated with which legislators must contend, “clarity” is often not encouraged but discouraged.  Why would that be so?  Because confusion and the speed of the General Assembly session are used to skew bills against ratepayers (read: taxpayers) while downplaying or denying the worst possible real-world applications of the proposed bill.

This was the case in 2015, and it appears to be the case again this year.

The SCC staff has done an admirable job in their bill summaries of clarifying a complex and confusing issue.  That provides one source of clarity.

Where else might we find clarity?  While you might not think about it, another source of clarity is Wall Street. Any perceived misdirection or incompleteness in Dominion or APCo statements to Wall Street subjects them to lawsuits – a consequence that does not exist within the General Assembly. For example, what was the consequence to Dominion of the fact that their main argument for the 2015 bill was not, shall we say, … accurate?

The main consequence is that Virginia’s taxpayers have electricity rates that amount to the equivalent to almost a $500 million tax increase (combining the cost of both Dominion and APCo).  The 2015 bill thus qualifies as one of the biggest tax increases in Virginia history, except that instead of those dollars being used for transportation, education, public safety, etc., they just go as a windfall to Dominion and APCo shareholders.

So, what does Wall Street think of HB1558/SB966 (hereafter “SB966” or “the bill”)?

On February 1st, investment bank UBS issued a report to their clients that gushed over how spectacularly Dominion handles the General Assembly and Governors of Virginia to boost Dominion’s value (at the expense of Virginia ratepayers). UBS called SB966 a “catalyst” that drives Dominion’s stock price higher, and Wall Street is so sure the General Assembly will pass the bill, and Gov. Northam will sign it, that it has already priced the benefits to Dominion of the bill into Dominion’s stock price!

UBS, in a model of understatement, opens its discussion of the bill by saying “Dominion has proven adept at navigating VA politics.” UBS continues by noting “…the state’s history of constructive utility legislation…” leads them to believe “that the bill has a good chance of passing.”

Of course to Wall Street, “constructive utility legislation” means legislation that makes it even easier for Dominion to make a lot of money, which would be a great thing, if it didn’t amount to legalizing seizure from Virginians and our businesses.  This grab is ‘legalized’ by the General Assembly and the Governor.

How easy does Wall Street think Virginia is on Dominion? UBS thinks Virginia’s regulatory environment is SO favorable to Dominion that they add a full 5% to the expected value of Dominion’s Virginia business just because of Virginia’s anti-consumer/pro-Dominion regulatory structure.  Now THAT is quite a return on Dominion’s “investments” in lobbying and donating to campaigns!

Dominion spends mere millions on TV commercials, on lobbying and on political contributions to candidates and legislators and in return Dominion gets to write its own legislation that returns billions of dollars in cash and value. That means that Wall Street thinks Virginia is among the easiest regulators of utilities in the entire country – i.e., Virginia’s General Assembly and Governors are pushovers for Dominion.

To use a dating analogy, if Virginia were dating utilities, her name and phone number would be on the boardroom wall of every utility in the Commonwealth under phrases like “for a good time call….”  And that “good time” doesn’t even cost Dominion very much.

Continue reading

How Is the New Double Dip any Different from the Old Double Dip?

The House of Delegates passed its own version of electric-utility regulatory reform yesterday. The big news is that the House amended the legislative compromise struck between Governor Ralph Northam, the electric utilities, and other key stakeholders to ensure that it prevents the dreaded “double dip.”

Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the commission have warned that the bill still restricts the ability of the commission to order refunds and lower base rates and also allows utilities to double charge for the grid and renewable investments: Once by canceling out refunds and again by including the projects in the rate base upon which they earn a profit.

“The governor’s office doesn’t believe that there is a double dip in the bill,” Toscano said Monday. “The entire Democratic caucus was taking the position that if there was no double dip in the bill like everyone has asserted, we will make sure the language is absolutely, positively clear.”

I don’t understand how this arrangement would differ substantively from the way rate regulation always worked. Permit me to express my perplexity with a hypothetical example:

Let’s say Dominion Energy Virginia wants to spend $100 million on burying distribution lines prone to disruption in severe weather events. That may or may not be a sound use of the money, but that’s not the question. The question is how Dominion would be compensated for that investment under the proposed new rules.

First, let’s assume that the utility is raking in excess revenue. Rather than rebate the excess to rate payers, Dominion gets to “reinvest” that money in a panoply of grid modernization projects of which distribution line undergrounding is one. Rate payers don’t get the money rebated to them. That’s the first dip. Then Dominion gets to build that $100 million investment into its rate base, and it gets to generate a return on investment — let’s say 10% for purposes of simplicity — until it is fully depreciated. Instead of rate payers getting to generate income on that $100 million, Dominion gets to pocket the income. That extra $10 million constitutes the double dip.

But that’s not the whole story! Under the pre-rate freeze regulatory regime that governed rate setting until 2015, Dominion would have filed for a rider, or Rate Adjustment Clause, to cover the $100 million capital investment of burying the power lines. As I understand it, Dominion also would have been entitled to recover not just the up-front capital but the cost of capital — about 10%.

Under the Northam-Dominion compromise, Dominion would not get to file a rider. Call that a reverse double dip. Rate payers would benefit the once because Dominion doesn’t get its $100 million back through a rider. And they would benefit twice because Dominion wouldn’t get to recover its cost of capital. In other words, it’s a wash. The only difference is that the expense is embedded in the “base” rates instead of in a rate adjustment clause.

Now, there are many other issues one might raise about the re-regulation legislation. Does it undermine the State Corporation Commission’s role overseeing electric utilities? Should the General Assembly declare massive “grid modernization” investments in solar power, wind power, pumped storage, energy-efficiency, smart grid investments, and underground burying of transmission and distribution lines to be in the “public interest,” thus lowering the bar for SCC approval? Great questions, let’s debate!

But double dipping? Dominion won’t get any more licks of ice cream than it did before — unless I am missing something. If I am, I beg you, please explain how the proposed new double dipping differs from the old double dipping. If your explanation makes sense, I will publish it on the blog.

Update: As you can read in the comments, Tom Hadwin and I went back and forth on this issue. Here is how I now understand it:

(1) Rate payers lose the $100 million rebate.
(2) Then the $100 million goes into the rate base, where it must be repaid to Dominion. (That’s the point I wasn’t comprehending before.)
(3) Plus ratepayers pay Dominion a 10% rate of return on the $100 million.
(4) Dominion does not file a Rate Adjustment Clause (RAC), saving rate payers $100 million.
(5) With no RAC, Dominion doesn’t earn 10%, and rate payers don’t have to pay it.

Peeling Back Another Layer of the Grid Modernization Debate

A critical point has gone missing in the debate over the Grid Transformation and Improvement Act: the effect of regulatory changes on the ability of Virginia’s electric utilities to borrow money.

Electric utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power Co. are highly leveraged; that is, a high percentage of their capital base consists of debt. They enter capital markets to borrow money needed to finance big projects, and the cost of that capital — the interest rate — is charged back to rate payers. Thus, any regulatory change affecting investor confidence and, thereby, interest rates, can have a little-noticed impact on electric rates.

In repealing the rate-freeze deal that has governed Virginia’s electricity sector since 2015, Dominion has advocated an “investment” regulatory model that calls for plowing over-earnings into renewable-energy and grid-modernization projects. This model first struck me as more complicated than it needed to be. Why not stick with the regulatory system that prevailed until the rate freeze? There’s a complicated answer to that question, and it involves utility borrowing costs and interest rates.

Layers

The old regulatory model, which Dominion lobbied to put into place in 2007, divided rate adjustments into three logical categories — base rates to cover ongoing operating costs, fuel adjustments to cover fluctuations in fuel prices, and project-specific riders (or rate adjustment clauses) to cover major capital investments. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) reviewed Dominion and Apco earnings every two years, determined if they were higher or lower than the permitted rate of return, and then ordered rebates for over-earnings. Pretty straightforward.

Under the proposed changes making their way through the General Assembly, however, over-earnings could be offset by investments in legislatively favored and SCC-approved priorities such as solar power, wind power, energy efficiency, smart meters, and the burying of electric lines. For those projects, over-earnings wouldn’t be rebated directly to rate payers. Instead, they would be deducted from what the utilities would have paid had they filed for riders to recoup capital investments. And customers would benefit indirectly from lower costs passed on through riders. It sounds like a regulatory system that Rube Goldberg would contrive.

As I explained yesterday, critics accuse Dominion of “double dipping” — benefiting once from avoiding the over-charge rebates, and benefiting twice by incorporating the overcharges into their cost structure, upon which they can then earn a 9%+ return on investment. While rate payers get their money back on the back end via an offsetting reduction in rate riders, Dominion gets to generate income off that money in the meantime.

I’m not sure that the critics’ argument stands up. If the old regulatory model still applied, Dominion would finance the grid modernization priorities through rate riders, they still would be allowed to make a return on capital it invested, and that return still would be passed on to customers. Double dipping appears to be an illusion. That’s my understanding, but I’m no expert in regulatory accounting, so I’ll dish definitive answers off to the experts.

The issue I want to focus on is why Dominion wants to pay for grid modernization the Rube Goldberg way rather than the straightforward way. Why would Dominion dream up such a convoluted approach unless it had something self-serving in mind? I put that question to the company. I hereby digest and repeat what I was told.

To understand the reason behind the “investment” model, we need to know how Dominion (and by Dominion, I mean the regulated utility, not the parent company) finances projects. If the company needs to spend, say, $1 billion to build a new power station or $500 million to build a new transmission line, it doesn’t have the cash sitting around to pay for it. It must borrow the money by issuing bonds. Investors want to be assured that Dominion will generate the cash flow to pay them back on schedule. They demand predictability. They hate uncertainty.

Some unpredictability is inevitable. No one knows if a hurricane will swoop through and knock out a lot of power lines, disrupting revenues and running up costs. No one knows if the state or federal government will enact new regulations for something like coal ash clean-up — or a regional greenhouse gas initiative — that had been entirely unanticipated a couple of years before.

A recent lightning bolt out of the blue was the reduction in federal income taxes. While parent company Dominion is celebrating the tax break for its unregulated subsidiaries, Dominion Energy Virginia won’t get a windfall. The Grid Transportation Act will require Dominion and Apco to rebate all tax savings to rate payers. Moody’s Investor Service, the bond rating group, sees the tax break as a negative event, not a neutral one. According to the Wall Street Journal, Moodys has reduced the rating outlook for 24 regulated and utility holding companies, including Dominion. (A negative outlook is not a rating downgrade; it merely says that a rating downgrade is possible.)

“If [cash flow] is going to be smaller, to us, the financial risk has gone up,” the Journal quotes Toby Shea, a senior credit officer at Moody’s, as saying.

Dominion’s proposed investment model takes some of the unpredictability and risk out of the equation. When going to the bond market to finance grid modernization, the company won’t get blindsided by an SCC order to cough up several hundred million dollars in rebates to customers. Instead, the company  will offset the rebates with spending on grid-modernization spending, which it can control. Investors will be reassured that Dominion’s revenues won’t decline precipitously, and the company will be rewarded by a better credit rating and lower interest rates than it would have enjoyed otherwise. That risk reduction translates into dollars and cents for customers.

That’s Dominion’s argument. Perhaps there are countervailing arguments. Even if so, it’s a critical piece of the debate that has yet to enter the public domain.

If valid, the argument calls into question the contras’ contention that customers would lose from double dipping. The critics’ accounting of pluses and minuses to customers fails to take into account the positive impact on Dominion’s borrowing power. On the other hand, the Dominion’s argument leaves some questions unanswered. How big would the impact of the Grid Modernization Act on interest rates be? One hundredth of a percentage point? A tenth of a percentage point? Bigger? How much would that save in interest rates? Are we talking about tens of millions of dollars,  hundreds of millions of dollars, or mere millions?

If Virginians want sound energy policy, we need to give this issue closer scrutiny.

Will Grid Transformation Allow Utility Double Dipping?

Dominion says the Grid Transformation Act will provide stable electric rates and a clean, reliable grid. Foes fear that the legislation will rip off customers and fatten utility profits.

As the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018 wends its way through the General Assembly, lawmakers and lobbyists are focusing on a key question: Will the bill allow Dominion and Appalachian Power Co. to engage in “double dipping” — effectively charging rate payers twice — or will it provide a mechanism to pay for potentially billions of dollars in upgrades while keeping electricity rates stable?

The public is receiving wildly conflicting messages.

“There is no double-dip, but there is a single-scoop with whipped cream and a cherry on top for our customers, who will have stable rates and a modern, clean infrastructure improving the reliability of the energy they use,” says Dominion spokesman David Botkins. “The only thing that will be dipping from the GTSA of 2018 will be our customers’ electric bills and the amount of time they’ll lose power.”

Stephen D. Haner, a lobbyist representing the Virginia Poverty Law Center, forcefully disagrees. “Frankly, I have stopped calling it double dipping and just call it taking away our refunds,” he says. “Customer refunds are being taken away in exchange for… nothing.”

The controversy arises because in the proposed “reinvestment” regulatory model of the Grid Transformation Act, Dominion Energy Virginia would not have to reimburse rate payers for hundreds of millions of dollars earned in excess of its allowed 9% return on investment as long as it reinvested the money in approved grid upgrades. Once that investment became baked into Dominion’s cost structure, the utility would be allowed to generate a return on it, in effect, a second payment.

Haner provides an analogy:

Imagine if you were going to buy a house valued at $400,000 dollars and paid $75,000 in cash. If you then took out a loan, you would expect to pay the bank $325,000 plus interest on your mortgage. Well, if Dominion were the bank, you’d pay $75,000 in cash up front, but then pay $400,000 plus interest on your mortgage. You’d be out of pocket $475,000 plus interest for your $400,000 house.

Dominion counters that the analogy is inappropriate. In the real world of electric rate setting, if the company didn’t pay for the grid upgrades through the reinvestment model, it would seek reimbursements, project by project, through riders (also referred to as a Rate Adjustment Clauses). Either way, the customer pays the up-front cost and a return on investment. The approach outlined in the Grid Transformation Act is more convoluted — necessary to provide the financial predictability that Dominion needs to sell the bonds that fund the improvements — but the company says rate payers won’t be any worse off.

Dominion’s Botkins says the bill has been structured to ensure that ratepayers are not subjected to rate increases attributable to the grid modernization. “Reinvestments of excess earnings authorized by this legislation cannot be used to raise customer rates in any fashion during the 10-year life of the Act,” he writes.

Under Virginia’s regulatory structure, there only two other ways to raise electricity rates: through fuel adjustment clauses and rate adjustment clauses. Because Dominion will be investing in solar, wind and energy efficiency, there will be no fuel expenditures to be reimbursed. As for rate adjustment clauses, the whole point of the Act, says Botkins, is to avoid them. The legislation specifically states that grid modernization investments cannot be recouped through rate adjustment clauses.

Ergo, says Botkins, “an investment that is not a rate adjustment clause, that is prohibited from being used to justify a base rate increase, and that has no fuel cost cannot cause a rate increase.”

Haner retorts that the issue isn’t raising rates — it’s reducing rates. “Promises not to raise base rates are polar bear insurance. Since my involvement in 2007 it has been clear the base rates are too high,” he says. While Dominion does promise to reimburse rate payers some $1 billion — including a rebate for lower federal taxes, which would have been due anyway — the legislation short-circuits any proper rate reckoning by the SCC.

The investments in grid modernization will reduce operating costs, which under a normal regulatory environment would benefit customers in the form of lower base rates, Haner says. “But as long as the SCC is encumbered … base rates will not go down and only stockholders will benefit from the efficiency.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Grid modernization is not solely a Dominion preoccupation. Duke Energy Carolinas also has proposed a grid modernization program — $13.8 billion over the next ten years to upgrade its transmission and distribution grid, including many of the same priorities that Dominion has identified such as smart meters and buried power lines. The company has requested a $13.4% rate hike, which numerous electricity consumer groups are pushing back against, reports the Charlotte Business Journal.

It’s not clear how many billions of dollars Dominion’s grid-upgrade plan would entail; the company has not provided an estimate. But the Tarheel plan makes a useful point of comparison. If Virginia wants solar power, offshore wind power, energy-efficiency programs, and a more hardened, resilient grid, it’s going to require potentially billions of dollars in investment. One way or another, rate payers will have to pay for it.

My question all along has been: Why such a convoluted method? Why not stick with the old regulatory system that provides a biennial accounting of earnings and rebates to customers along with project-by-project rate adjustments to cover the cost of big capital expenditures? There are hidden costs that have yet to be revealed in the public discussion of grid transformation. I hope to address that issue later this week.

A View from the Trenches: Ending the Freeze

by Chris Saxman

Statesmen should remember that they have been elected to persuade and to lead, and not just to accept as fixed the momentary moods and pernicious prejudices of the public.
     — Stanley Hoffman

Professor Hoffman might have been quite pleased watching yesterday’s Senate Commerce and Labor Committee as the compromise legislation on electric utility regulation, grid modernization, and energy efficiency was debated and sent to the Senate floor.

Here is Governor Ralph Northam’s press release on the legislation.

The bill – SB 966 – is being carried by Commerce and Labor Chairman Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, along with Senator Dick Saslaw, R-Fairfax), who was carrying a similar bill, SB967. Saslaw’s bill was incorporated or “rolled” into SB966 at the start of the debate.

After that motion came internal committee debate and questioning of Wagner and Saslaw which helped explain the compromise bill brokered by Governor Ralph Northam and House Speaker Kirk Cox. Just hours before the committee meeting, the Governor announced that a deal, in fact, been struck.

Almost all of the committee members spoke at one point and in doing so exposed the extraordinary changes occurring in the political landscape – both in Virginia and in the U.S. Remember, that Virginia is a battleground, bellwether coming off a dramatic statewide election just three months ago. More on that later….

During the 2017 election, the issues being debated yesterday played a prominent but not decisive role.

Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, opened the dialogue as he expressed concerns about the economic value of the significant solar investment required in the bill. The 5,000 megawatts of solar power to be added in Virginia by 2028, he thought, would be too heavy a cost to be paid by ratepayers, suggesting that this was more “social judgement’ than economic good. Obenshain expressed that perhaps the State Corporation Commission is in better position to make such decisions rather than having the General Assembly do it “on the fly.”

Saslaw explained that 5,000 megawatts equated to 1.25 million homes that would be powered by solar generation and that “nothing is free.” Saslaw said that “both” economic and social judgments were being addressed in SB966.

Senator Steve Newman, R-Campbell County, acknowledged his gratitude that the bill was “much improved in just a week” but that he, too, had economic concerns for ratepayers about the solar portions of the bill as a “giveaway too high and too great” for his support.

Senator Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, questioned if the real winners of the compromise were the stockholders of Dominion or Appalachian Power while Senator Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg asked, “Who spoke for the consumers?”

Dana Wiggins of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which had been very vocal publicly in decrying the current law written in 2015 in response to the Clean Power Plan, stated that while her organization had been part of the working group, it “still had concerns about double charging.” Later Wiggins would testify that the VPLC was neither for nor against the bill, which shocked many observers because the Center’s pre-session commentary had been so negative. Now it was neutral.

Southside Senator Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, did explore, along with Northern Neck Senator Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland,concerns about “double charging” and “giving people their money back” as they questioned Dominion lobbyists Jack Rust and Bill Murray. Continue reading

Northam, Cox Agree to Roll Back State Regs

Do beauty parlor employees really need a state license to shampoo hair?

Governor Ralph Northam and House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox announced legislation yesterday that would launch a pilot program to “remove burdensome and unnecessary regulatory requirements facing hard working Virginians.”

“We have a responsibility to constantly evaluate every regulatory requirement and policy to ensure that it is doing its job in the least restrictive way possible,” said Northam in a press release.

Added Cox: “We know that red tape hinders entrepreneurs, innovators, and small and large businesses alike from creating more of the good paying jobs that our people need. This pilot program will significantly reduce regulations in two heavily-regulated areas and lay the foundation for further efforts to reduce regulations across state government, helping our economy and making government more efficient at the same time.”

House Bill 883 creates a three-year pilot program to be administered by the Department of Planning and Budget. The program will focus on the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation and the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a goal of reducing or streamlining regulatory requirements, compliance costs and regulatory burdens by 25 percent.

Professional licensure requirements have come under heavy fire in recent years for restricting job opportunities for lower income Virginians, and the Northam-Cox initiative follows a number of bills taking aim at specific regulations. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

On Monday, the House passed a bill to specify that hair salon workers who only clean, style or blow dry hair do not have to get a state-issued license. It also specifies that shampooing is not among the more sensitive chemical treatments that require extra government oversight.

“We don’t need to be regulating shampoos,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, the bill’s sponsor. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want big government in my hair.”

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, brought his daughter, Ally, onto the House floor Monday as a living argument for why the state should not include hair braiding it its cosmetology regulations.

When her friend provided her with a beautiful hair braid, she decided to compensate her with a dollar,” Freitas said. “And that is when her descent into crime began.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If we can decriminalize petty traffickers in marijuana, surely we can decriminalize shampooers and hair braiders!

Occupational licensing is a good place to start the regulatory rollback. The heavy hand of government isn’t oppressing big businesses here. It’s thwarting ordinary Virginians — typically lower-income Virginians with fewer job opportunities — from entering heavily regulated occupations and earning a living. Reform should appeal to free-marketeers and social justice warriors alike.

The bipartisan backing of this legislation is encouraging. If the pilot project proves successful, perhaps the experiment would provide impetus for deregulation of other sectors of the economy.

Compromise Bill Ending the Rate Freeze Advances In Senate

Lightning show

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.

Tinkering with the Electricity Regulation Bill

Lightning show

In yesterday’s fast-moving action in the General Assembly, bills to end the electricity rate freeze underwent several important changes. I have done no original reporting here. I’m just extracting key details from Robert Zullo’s article in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

A substitute bill submitted by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott:

  • Increases one-time rebates to Dominion Virginia Energy customers from $133 million to $175 million.
  • Allows the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to order refunds and lower base rates after a single triennial review instead of after two consecutive three-year reviews.
  • Allows the SCC to review 2017 earnings as part of the first review.
  • Incorporates elements from other bills that would authorize the burial of transmission lines, streamline the approval of efficiency programs, and declare solar development to be in the public interest.

The Kilgore bill still converts two-year reviews of base electric rates to three-year reviews, and it preserves Dominion’s proposal for a “reinvestment” regulatory model for modernizing the electric grid to make it more resilient from storms, more secure from cyber-attack, and better suited to renewable power, energy efficiency and microgrids.

I’m still unclear on how the reinvestment model works. David Ress with the Daily Press describes the concept this way:

Any excess profits Dominion earns would go to pay for those investments, instead of going in part to customers or justifying cuts in its base rates. … By using any excess earnings to improve the grid and install an eightfold increase in solar facilities, the company can finance those projects out of existing rates without imposing the “riders” — special surcharges — it has been using to build its newest power plants.

OK… Why does this make more sense than the pre-freeze regulatory model? What’s wrong with rebating excess earnings on “base” rates to customers, and what’s wrong with financing grid modernization through riders? There may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the changes, but the logic is not self-evident.

The reinvestment model is central to the revamping of the electricity regulatory system. Everyone would benefit from more clarity on how it would work and the thinking behind it.

Bills Would Prevent Ratepayer Refunds for Six Years, SCC Says

Lightning show

Proposals to overhaul Virginia’s system for regulating electric rates would provide no opportunity for the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to order refunds to rate payers until 2024 for Appalachian Power Company and 2025 for Dominion Energy Virginia, concludes a State Corporation Commission analysis of Senate Bills 966 and 967.

The SCC conducted the analysis at the request of Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who has advocated a return to the regulatory system that prevailed before the 2015 enactment of a rate freeze that has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of excess profits for the two utilities. Dominion has worked with legislators to advance a proposal that would return $1 billion to ratepayers over 10 years and replace biennial rate reviews with triennial rate reviews.

Key impacts on rate payers can be summarized as follows, states the analysis submitted by John F. Dudley, counsel to the Commission (quoting verbatim):

  1. There will be no opportunity to consider base-rate reductions or refunds to customers for at least six years, and then only if the utility over-earns for two consecutive three-year periods, effectively extending the current base-rate freeze further into the future.
  2. There may be only a partial return of reduction in federal income taxes currently being collected in base rates.
  3. The provision in current law that allows utilities to keep more than 30% of their excess earnings is continued.
  4. The legislation allows the utilities to keep future excess earnings (i.e. customer overpayments) and, rather than return them to customers, use them for capital projects chosen by the utility. In addition the utilities can charge customers for these same projects in base rates.
  5. The legislation deems certain capital projects to be “in the public interest,” thus impacting the SCC’s authority to evaluate whether such projects are cost-effective or whether there are alternatives available at lower costs to customers. This provision could potentially result in billions of dollars of additional costs that will be charged to customers in higher rates.
  6. An amount that appears to represent the customers’ portion of prior period excess earnings is returned to customers, but the amount has not been examined in a formal proceeding to determine its accuracy.

Dominion Energy Virginia has issued the following response:

This report analyzes a work in progress [that is] subject to change. We continue to believe a reinvestment model that transforms our energy grid and significantly increases the amount of renewable energy we produce is sound policy for Virginia. We have always said all tax savings should return to customers effective Jan. 1, 2018 and be appropriately adjusted by the SCC when the final IRS rules are available. To the extent that is not clear, we would support an amendment making it so.