On a Friday vote of 32-6, the state senate passed a bill that freezes Dominion Power’s electric rates for five years. Base rates account for more than half of a residential customer’s bill.
On the face of it, that sounds like a winner for the consumer, especially with tighter, expensive federal regulations on the horizon. However, the bill also loosens the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority over Dominion. No longer can the SCC mandate refunds if it finds Dominion has been overcharging its base rate.
After the House of Delegates agrees, consumers will have to trust Dominion not to overcharge, despite its recent history of doing just that. The SCC caught them in 2009 and 2011, and customers received refunds.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, voted for the bill, which earned Democratic support with modest solar-friendly amendments. Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Millboro, held firm and voted against it.
If Dominion wants to freeze rates for five years, they don’t need a law to make them do it. They need a law to keep the SCC from mandating a refund. And that’s what they got from the state senate.
Dominion Power’s cozy relationship with the Virginia General Assembly pays off handsomely for both sides. The power company gets to write and lobby for legislation. Politicians get large donations and make themselves de facto regulators, the ones who decide if rates for an essential utility — electricity— are fair.
In the case of Friday’s bill, this payoff is to the detriment of consumers, who may or may not get overcharged in the next five years. Yes, more than half of the base rate will be frozen. But that doesn’t mean the rates won’t be higher than necessary.
Friday’s vote illustrates what the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline debate has shown since its beginning: People are practically powerless in the face of a huge public utility that has governmental eminent domain privileges without accountability and citizen oversight.
Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, introduced a bill asking for any public service corporation trying to use eminent domain subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act on projects for which it is exercising eminent domain. A House of Delegates committee tabled the bill on a voice vote, with no record of who supported it and who didn’t.
Hanger still has three Dominion-related bills under consideration. One matches Bell’s bill. The second seeks to repeal the 2004 law that allows utilities to survey land without property owners’ permission. The third goes the Hail Mary Augusta County route of trying to make local input matter in allowing utilities to enter private land without permission.
None of these bills will pass. All three are before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which passed SB 1349 on a 14-1 vote, before the solar amendments were added.
Virginia’s citizenry simply does not have the influence over her General Assembly that Dominion does.
Dominion’s profits, not consumer welfare, are what drives the debate in the General Assembly. We saw that Friday. We’ll see it the rest of the session.