Governor Terry McAuliffe said yesterday that he supports legislation that would cancel the freeze in base electric rates on Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power if President Trump kills the Clean Power Plan. The endorsement came a little late for state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax City, whose bill to roll back the freeze was killed in a Senate committee in January in a 12 to 2 vote.
Taxpayers “are entitled to the lowest, most efficient rate that we can deliver to them,” McAuliffe said on the John Fredericks Show, which broadcasts in Hampton Roads, Richmond, Lynchburg, Danville and Franklin. “If Chap Petersen can get me a bill on my desk, I’d sign it. Let me be clear.”
“There’s a better chance of me starting for the Redskins as quarterback,” said Petersen, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Governor, you’re going to need to send down the legislation.”
In 2015 The General Assembly passed a bill freezing base electric rates, which McAuliffe signed, after the Obama administration had rolled out the Clean Power Plan requiring Virginia’s electric utilities to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. The State Corporation Commission staff had estimated that the legislation could push electric rates 20% higher. With a stated goal of providing rate stability in uncertain times, the legislation locked base rates in place for six years.
Environmentalists were critical of the bill from the beginning, arguing that the Clean Power would increase rates only marginally. Then industrial customers contended that Dominion had been overcharging customers before the law went into effect, and the law locked in rates at excessively high levels. Moreover, they charged, the electric companies weren’t even taking on a major risk: If the Clean Power Plan had forced them to retire coal plants and build new generating facilities, they would have been able to pass on the cost through a Rate Adjustment Clause, which wasn’t affected.
Dominion has argued that the law also provided for annual, instead of biennial, review of power companies’ Integrated Resource Plans, making the planning process more transparent. As part of the legislative compromise, the company also upped its financial commitment to its Energy Share energy-efficiency plan for low-income homeowners.
Furthermore, Bill Murray, Dominion’s managing director of public policy, said last week, the company has taken $296 million in write-offs for the past two years for expenses relating to the closure of its coal ash ponds. The freeze prevents the company from recovering those costs. “Those are costs we are absorbing.”
Bacon’s bottom line: McAuliffe’s support for reversing the freeze is a day late and a dollar short. As a practical matter, Petersen’s bill cannot be resurrected. Reversing the freeze without understanding the emerging regulatory context may not make sense anyway. The Trump administration has made clear its intention to kill the Clean Power Plan. We Virginians need a clearer idea of what kind of energy policy we want going forward. Simply rolling back the freeze doesn’t inform that debate.
Solar power is the potential game changer. The cost of generating solar energy continues to decline, and so does the cost of battery storage, which will help offset the intermittent nature of solar generation. No one disagrees with those propositions, but many questions remain open. How rapidly are solar prices declining? When will solar become economically competitive with natural gas in Virginia? That depends in large measure what happens to natural gas prices. Will they rise from currently low levels, and, if so, by how much?
Another big question is how much solar can Dominion, Appalachian Power and Virgina’s electric co-ops absorb without undermining the reliability of the electric grid. A related set of questions revolves around how much retail competition regulators should allow, how to guarantee the integrity of the grid if electric utilities lose market to independent solar operators, and how rate payers will be impacted if utilities experience a decrease in consumption.
One more pressing matter: What’s the role of nuclear in a post-Clean Power Plan world? While it still may make economic sense to renew the licenses for Dominion’s existing nuclear power plants, building a third unit at North Anna guesstimated to be $18 billion probably does not. Dominion wanted to maintain that option as an insurance policy, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in engineering and permitting expenses, to protect against the most onerous of the Clean Power Plan regulatory scenarios. In a Trump presidency, that scenario looks highly unlikely. Should Dominion scrap North Anna 3?
If Virginians want to unfreeze the freeze, we need to recognize that no regulatory action takes place in a vacuum. Rather than dealing with each of these issues piece-meal we should settle them in a comprehensive way.
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on February 10, 2017)