This will be one of those blog posts where many readers will ignore the substance of my arguments and go straight for the jugular — Dominion Energy Virginia sponsors this blog, I’m a shill for Dominion, and, therefore, anything and everything I say can be discounted without further thought. If you’re one of those people, I know I won’t persuade you. But please, if you object to my conclusion, don’t settle for the cheap ad hominem shot. Explain to me why I’m wrong.
This post was triggered by a Washington Post op-ed by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, titled, “Why I’m Breaking Up with Dominion.” Keam wrote:
In 2017, President Trump made it clear there would be no Clean Power Plan, which put Dominion in a bind. Dominion couldn’t justify continuing the rate freeze when the reason it cited no longer existed and it held nearly a billion dollars of potential customer refunds.
On the other hand, as Virginia’s most powerful political donor, Dominion couldn’t admit its mistake and simply return to pre-2015 status. So, Dominion launched an all-out lobbying campaign to push for a different result.
First some background: In June 2014, the Obama administration began implementing its Clean Power Plan. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff estimated that the plan would cost Dominion between $5.5 billion and $6 billion for Dominion to shut down coal plants and replace them with power from other fuel sources. Environmental groups suggested that the cost would be much less. But nobody knew for sure, and nobody possibly could know until the Commonwealth adopted a definitive methodology for calculating CO2 goals to be attained. When the General Assembly convened in January 2015, uncertainty reigned.
A deal was struck to freeze base electric rates through 2022 (while continuing to allow the SCC to adjust rates for fluctuations in the cost of fuel and pay for major capital projects). The purpose was to guarantee rate stability for electricity customers. Whatever the outcome for Dominion and Appalachian Power, customers wouldn’t be subjected to higher base rates. Dominion and Apco absorbed the risk. They might make higher profits if the costs were lower than feared, but they might make lower profits if worst-case cost scenarios panned out.
In November 2016 something happened that no one anticipated — Donald Trump won the presidential election, and he effectively spiked the Clean Power Plan.
But what if Hillary Clinton had won, as virtually all informed political opinion expected? It’s no stretch to think that the Environmental Protection Agency and the McAuliffe administration would have continued implementing the Clean Power Plan. We cannot know which of the regulatory options the administration would have chosen — setting CO2 emission targets based on mass-based limits (or total tons emitted) or rate-based limits (CO2 emitted per unit of electricity) — but we can safely assume that the new regulatory framework would have been more costly than doing nothing at all.
Continuing our counter-factual scenario, let’s say the Clean Power Plan framework adopted by Virginia would cost the $5.5 billion to $6 billion postulated by the SCC, and that Dominion had to eat a billion dollars or two in write-offs when it shut down its coal-fired power plants. Now let’s say Dominion came to the General Assembly, saying, sniff, sniff, poor us, these regulations are ruinous, could you please bail us out? What answer would Keam and others of like mind have given? They would have said, “Not a snowball’s chance in hell! You took yer chances and you lost. Now beat it!” And rightfully so.
Of course, that’s not the way things turned out. Dominion lucked out. Trump won the election and he canceled the Clean Power Plan. By January of 2018, Dominion was accumulating earnings way above its normally allowed rate of return (although a major weather event or a regulatory order to pay of billions of dollars to clean up coal ash ponds could have negated those profits).
Inevitably, a hew and cry was raised that Dominion was making out like a bandit by pocketing huge excess profits. Dominion was on track to make a lot of money, all right, but not like a bandit. More like a poker player. Dominion didn’t steal anything — but it did win the bet.
A lot of politicians and consumer advocates couldn’t see the difference. And, politicians being politicians, they ignored the risk that Dominion absorbed back in 2015 and clamored for a rollback of the freeze. The game they were playing can be described forthrightly as, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
When it became clear in the November 2017 elections that voters largely agreed with the anti-Dominion politicians, nearly obliterating the Republicans’ hefty majority in the House of Delegates, Dominion saw the writing on the wall. The utility seized the initiative with its proposal to end the freeze on its own terms — by reinvesting over-earnings into a massive grid-modernization plan. Politically, the ploy was brilliant. Dominion cut a deal with the new Northam administration, environmental groups, independent solar producers, and other constituencies, leaving Keam and his buddies to eat dust. I understand why the delegate is so sore.
The resulting Grid Transformation and Security Act may or may not be a good piece of legislation. I haven’t delved deeply enough into the details to conclude whether it will be harmful or beneficial to rate payers. We can be reasonably assured that it will be beneficial to Dominion, or the company would not have gone along with it. But if I were a senior Dominion executive, I’d be very wary of cutting a deal like the 2015 rate freeze ever again. Getting sucked into a heads-you-win, tails-I-lose political proposition is no way to run a business.