Northam endorses unfreezing of Dominion Energy utility rates

Gov. Ralph Northam endorsed a major overhaul of electric utility regulations Monday, stating the changes will restore customer protections and spur the development of a modern, resilient electric grid.

The governor supported legislation to repeal and replace a controversial 2015 law that suspended regular financial reviews of electric utility rates, freezing base rates and overcharging some customers for three years.

Under the new bill, Dominion customers, which includes 18,000 in Shenandoah County, would receive a one-time bill credit of $133 million. Northam has asked, among other changes, for that figure to be adjusted to $200 million. The credit would be $30 to $50 on each customer’s July electric bill.

“The goal of that legislation should be simple: 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,” Northam said in a statement.

However, Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, warned that the bill would allow utilities to keep rates at unfairly high prices instead of returning money to ratepayers.

In a news release, Northam said the legislation should require Dominion Energy to reduce power rates by an additional $125 million and the State Corporations Commission should consider reducing rates in 2021, with no possibility of a rate increase.

Originally, the rate freezes went into effect in 2015 to help power companies comply with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which put additional regulation on carbon emissions. Dominion Energy senior communications specialist Rayhan Daudani said that compliance with the plan would have cost the company somewhere in the ballpark of $6 billion.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the legislation (originally drafted by Dominion officials) into law, though he said he had “concerns.”

Daudani said the core issue was uncertainty. How exactly would the Clean Power Plan affect Dominion Energy’s business? How would Virginia regulate carbon emissions?

However, with President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency working to repeal the Clean Power Plan from its current state of limbo and McAuliffe’s executive order that clarified carbon emission rules in Virginia, Daudani said Dominion Energy now has a clearer picture of its future and supports unfreezing the base utility rate.

“We now have a much better sense of what carbon regulation looks like for the Commonwealth, looks like in terms of costs for utilities, and how that would affect our customers. And so for that reason, we don’t really need the rate freeze,” Daudani said. “The rate freeze was really an insurance policy, and we really were fortunate that we didn’t have to cash in on it. It’s kind of served its purpose, and now it’s time for us to transition away.”

Area residents in Shenandoah County likely will experience the greatest impact from this bill. Warren and Frederick counties are, for the most part, outside of Dominion Energy’s coverage area.

Daudani anticipated that Dominion customers will see a $30 to $50 credit on their July bill, and subsequent bills will generally be about $6 cheaper.

“This means that the average customer will be paying about the same amount as they were paying in 2009,” Daudani said. “Almost a decade will have gone by and you’re paying the same amount for your electricity, and we think that’s pretty good.”

Still, Herring is not alone in expressing disagreement with the bill. Some agree that the legislation paves the way for unfairly high rates. Others argue that the new bill doesn’t go far enough to protect customers, stretching the State Corporation Commission’s financial reviews of electric utilities from once every two years to once every three years.

Daudani pointed out that electric companies previously had to report rate overcharging in two consecutive reviews, making the effective review period four years long. He also said the expanded time between reviews allows the company to smooth out anomalies and yield more averaged reports.

A Senate panel approved a version of the legislation Monday.