It was a bill that had its own meme.
“When Dominion writes the law: We pay twice. They get richer,” said a post that swept the web with the hashtags #HB1558 #KILLTHEBILL and #STOPTHESCAM before the House of Delegates voted to pass the bill 63-35 on February 13.
The bill was a response to the Utility Rate Freeze Bill of 2015, which froze electricity rates, but also removed the State Corporation Commission’s review of the rates of major utility companies like Dominion Energy until 2022.
Over the past couple years, Dominion has gained massive “overearnings” of several hundred million dollars, says Delegate David Toscano, who represents Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the 57th District. HB1558 and its Senate counterpart, SB966, would require Dominion to give refunds to its customers and lead to major investments in energy conservation.
Toscano has called the legislation some of the most significant of this General Assembly session, and though he voted against the bills, he attached an amendment that would prohibit Dominion from “double dipping” by charging ratepayers twice to update the grid and for investments in renewable energy. Put simply, the utility company won’t be able to take from refunds owed to ratepayers—that’s one dip—and still charge extra to finance the same projects—the second dip.
The same amendment was placed on the Senate bill, which passed the House 65-30 on February 26.
“Few would argue that there are some substantial benefits derived from this bill,” Toscano said in a letter to his constituents. Dominion customers will receive $200 million in refunds over the next two years and an immediate rate reduction of at least $125 million. The bill supports renewable energy and requires the utility company to invest almost $1 billion in grid modernization.
But in Toscano’s dissenting vote, he declares that problems with the bill remain. The SCC’s ability to control rates is restricted, and any future rate reductions could have to wait much longer than if the organization immediately resumes regulation.
Costs incurred for utility undergrounding projects have been deemed “reasonable and prudent” without the SCC knowing the actual costs, says Toscano, and that could make ratepayer refunds less than the $200 million promised by the bill.
“SB966 requires Dominion to refund ratepayers just pennies to the dollar of what we are owed,” says Elaine Colligan, director of the Clean Virginia Project, which is a local independent initiative funded by investor Michael Bills and run out of Tom Perriello’s New Virginia Way PAC.
As for future overcharges, Colligan says the bill postpones SCC review of base electricity rates until 2021, and if the organization finds that consumers have been overcharged, it can only order refunds up to $50 million. In 2016 alone, Dominion overcharged customers an estimated $395 million, she adds.
“This is simply a bad deal,” she says. “Consumers should be refunded 100 percent of what we are owed.”
Dominion Energy, a private corporation, owns the publicly regulated electric monopoly in Virginia and, according to Colligan, it is permitted to spend unlimited amounts in campaign contributions and political gifts.
“The passage of SB966 is symptomatic of Virginia’s unique style of political corruption,” she says. “In the absence of publicly financed elections, a full-time and well-funded state legislature and checks and balances on Dominion’s influence on our representatives, we can only expect that the company would try to ram a utility bill through the General Assembly that is a windfall for their profits.”
If the Senate bill is signed into law, Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani says customers will begin seeing refunds in their July bills. The average bill is about $115.75 a month, and the average customer can expect to see a $6 credit for about nine months. Customers can also expect about $125 million in rate reductions from federal tax legislation, he says.
“When you factor in these rate credits, it’ll lower them down to the same rate [customers] were paying in 2009,” he says.
Dominion has drawn major controversy and criticism because of its efforts to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $6 billion and 600-mile gas fracking pipeline that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved in October.
Charlottesville resident Kay Ferguson, who also opposed the utility rate bills, says she’s become familiar with the company in her fight against the ACP.
“It is a big bully,” she says. “It does have a chokehold on the government in Virginia.”
But, says Daudani, “That’s the way the political process is set up. It requires us to make sure our voice is heard alongside other groups that may have their own priorities.”