By Kate Andrews
Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc. recorded more than $500 million above authorized earnings levels from 2017 to 2019, according to a State Corporation Commission report released Tuesday.
The report, which was sent to Gov. Ralph Northam and the House and Senate labor and commerce committee chairs, says that the publicly traded Fortune 500 utility earned $300.8 million in 2017 and $277.3 million in 2018 over the state-determined 9.2% return-on-equity base.
In 2019, however, the utility was below the authorized limit, with 8.03%, or $75.4 million less than the ROE base — mainly because of the closure of generation facilities and costs related to coal byproducts management at four facilities.
Dominion’s combined earnings over the limit during the three-year period are $502.7 million, the company reported to the SCC.
Dominion’s return on equity is the allowed profit for its shareholders’ investment in the utility’s equity. Last November, the SCC rejected Dominion’s proposed increase of the return on equity base from 9.2% to 10.75%.
According to the report, a typical residential Dominion customer pays $26.10 (28.81%) more per month now than in 2007, with the average residential monthly electric bill totaling $116.69.
Advocacy group Clean Virginia called Tuesday for legislative reforms to prevent overcharging by the utility. “Virginians — particularly Black and brown households — were already struggling with high energy burdens and rising electricity bills before the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout,” Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said in the statement. “Lawmakers can easily soften the blow for families and small businesses by requiring Dominion Energy to shoulder its fair share of COVID-related utility debt from the half a billion dollars it has already taken from Virginians and return the rest of it to the people and businesses they overcharged.”
The SCC currently does not have the authority to refund the money to customers or lower base rates to prevent overcharges, Clean Virginia added.
During the regular General Assembly session, the Fair Energy Bills Act introduced by Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, and Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, would have allowed the SCC to review electricity base rates and set profit levels for Dominion, an authority the commission had until 2015. However, a Senate panel killed the bill in March after it cleared the House on a 77-23 vote.
Dominion released its own statement in response to the report: “As always, we will review the SCC’s latest report on earnings, while recognizing that it represents an interim assessment. We are looking forward to next year’s comprehensive review by the SCC of customer rates and our performance, a so-called ‘triennial review’ that will cover the 2017 to 2020 period. That proceeding will present an opportunity for a review of the investments we have made on behalf of our customers. We’re proud of our record and of the changes underway at the company. We have kept rates well below the national and East Coast averages and maintained a strong record of reliability, while building the nation’s leading clean-energy portfolio.”
The SCC will conduct a more comprehensive survey next year, including 2020’s ROE base results. It’s too early to tell yet, but so far in 2020, Dominion has recorded $630.7 million in costs related to closure of three power stations in Chesterfield County and Yorktown in the first quarter of the year and $116.6 million in unpaid electricity bills as of June 30 since the state placed a moratorium on disconnections in March, the SCC reported last week. A spokesman said the utility is ready to extend the moratorium to October if regulators allow it.
According to the report, Dominion would owe 70% of the excess funds to its customers — currently $256.8 million, although the utility would be allowed to subtract $199.9 million invested in the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project and grid transformation work. That leaves approximately $57 million in refundable income, but that number could change by next year’s comprehensive report.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director
August 18, 2020
BREAKING: Dominion Energy overcharged Virginians by $502.7 million since 2017
Legislative reform urgently needed during special session to respond to economic crisis and protect Virginia families and small businesses in 2021
Charlottesville — The State Corporation Commission (SCC) found that according to Dominion Energy’s own accounting, the monopoly has overcharged its customers by $502.7 million since 2017 — money collected from customers in excess of the monopoly’s authorized profit level, according to an annual report released today. Unless the General Assembly passes legislative reform during the special session, which begins today, the SCC will not have the full authority to refund this money to customers or lower base rates to prevent overcharges in the future.
“Virginians – particularly Black and Brown households – were already struggling with high energy burdens and rising electricity bills before the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout. Lawmakers can easily soften the blow for families and small businesses by requiring Dominion Energy to shoulder its fair share of COVID-related utility debt from the half a billion dollars it has already taken from Virginians and return the rest of it to the people and businesses they overcharged,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.
The report’s findings include:
“The General Assembly must act immediately to protect Virginians, who especially during this economic crisis, simply cannot afford unfairly high electricity bills. Dominion has shown once again that it will employ every accounting trick possible to make the money it owes Virginians disappear,” Gilmore said. “In the face of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, Virginians need a fair process determining the cost of their electricity bills more than ever. The General Assembly now has a singular chance to right the historic wrong of Dominion’s egregious overcharges and provide immediate relief for Virginians. This cannot wait.”
Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell’s history of railroading Black communities and glorifying the Confederacy is under new scrutiny after the demise of his controversial pipeline.
By Alexander Kaufman
Summer 2014 was an exciting and nostalgic season for the most powerful unelected man in Virginia.
In May of that year, Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II made his cinematic debut with “Field of Lost Shoes,” a Civil War drama following the victorious Confederate cadets at the Battle of New Market. He had co-written, produced and financed the film. In addition to being a lawyer and the boss of a $62 billion Richmond, Virginia-based utility that serves 6.7 million people in eight states, Farrell is a history buff who said he pulled many of the movie’s lines straight from diaries and speeches of the time. Historians, however, say he added one glaring fiction to his film: depicting the young, white Rebel heroes as would-be abolitionists, who were either apathetic about or opposed to slavery.
Historical criticism aside, Farrell was still riding high on that premiere when, in September, he arrived in a blue suit at the historic state capitol building in Richmond to accept then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas project that Farrell hoped would define his legacy as one of his generation’s great industrialists.
“In the 19th century, we had railroads, the steam engine and the beginning of steel manufacturing. In the 20th century, we had the automobile assembly line, the internet and ― from my perspective, the most important of all ― the electric grid,” Farrell told reporters at the press conference, held on the hottest day in Richmond that year. “In the 21st century, the expansion of our natural gas pipeline network looks to be one of those key infrastructure developments.”
Six years later, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project has been torpedoed by a mix of changing economics, accusations of environmental racism and climate recklessness. The collapse of the pipeline coincides with a national movement against anti-Black racism that has had particular resonance in Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy. Critics of the racial impact of Dominion’s actions under Farrell’s leadership hope that, together with the financial loss from the pipeline project, the current political ferment could finally end his 14-year reign.
Under Farrell, Dominion has become a national symbol of how political corruption and monopoly power can undercut efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. That was worked for Farrell so long as Dominion’s cash could buy it the acquiescence of state legislatures. But now Virginia and many other states are looking to transition to 100% carbon-free electricity, and Dominion’s shareholders are in revolt. In May, nearly 47% of those shareholders voted in favor of a proposal to require an independent board chair, which would have given Farrell ― who currently serves as both chairman and chief executive ― a boss. In early July, Dominion’s stock price plunged more than 11% after the company and its partner, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, announced the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation. The stock price has yet to fully recover, even as the market rebounds.
Virginia progressives, who cheered the toppling of four Confederate monuments in Richmond in recent weeks, hope Farrell could be the next storied edifice to fall.
“Clearly there’s a need for new leadership and new direction,” said state Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democratic legislator from Roanoke. “Dominion has consistently operated counter to the interests of Virginians and … when you have a CEO who championed a film that essentially glorifies the Confederacy, with all that is going on, it’s clear that there’s a new mindset needed.”
Dominion declined to comment on the record, but internal messages show the company worried this story aimed to “tar” Farrell as part of a coordinated effort to damage the firm. In an on-background phone call, a spokesman pointed to the company’s recent commitments to donate $25 million to historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina and to fund $10 million in scholarships for minority students. The spokesman also highlighted a corporate pledge in June to direct $5 million to “social justice” and “community rebuilding efforts.”
“At Dominion Energy, we have a saying that ‘Actions Speak Louder.’ We share the anger of our communities at the unjustified deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd,” Farrell said in a press release announcing the latter commitment. “Our communities are grieving. Words can evoke empathy, compassion and understanding, but actions truly speak louder. So, we are investing in recovery and reconciliation, and in the vital work of overcoming years of debilitating actions, attitudes and abuses of authority that have traumatized our country.”
The company denied a request to interview Farrell.
Opposition from environmental justice groups contributed to the demise of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposal would have sent the pipeline through Buckingham County, a rural, mountainous area roughly 90 minutes west of Richmond. Dominion also planned to erect a compressor station in Union Hill, a historically Black community in Northern Virginia that freed slaves founded in the 1800s before the Civil War.
Compressor stations, which use fuel from the pipeline to run a series of gas-compressing engines that keep fuel flowing through the pipeline, emit air pollutants that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Dominion said the Union Hill permit that the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board had unanimously approved set limits on emissions four to 10 times lower than other recent permits granted in the state. But that still allowed for the release of a cocktail of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
For years, Union Hill residents protested and organized groups against the project. The Virginia NAACP condemned Dominion’s plans and urged regulators to halt permitting. In an August 2018 letter, the 15-member state Advisory Council on Environmental Justice urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to suspend the permits already granted and conduct a review of potential “civil and human rights violations” and “ensure that predominantly poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
“We strongly disagree with the Advisory Council’s recommendations,” the company told The Washington Post at the time.
The company then proposed pouring $5.1 million into the Union Hill community, vowing to build a community center and fund an expansion of emergency services. The money proved divisive, which some there said was exactly the point.
“Dominion is an expert at the divide-and-conquer tactic,” Rev. Paul Wilson, the preacher at one of Union Hill’s two historically Black churches and a leading opponent of the pipeline, told NBC News in 2018. “There’s a group of people who are even moving to get me out as pastor. Once you inject money into the conversation, it becomes a wedge.”
When former Vice President Al Gore and anti-poverty activist Rev. William Barber II denounced the compressor station as environmental racism in 2019, Dominion started running Facebook ads featuring video from a high school essay contest on civil rights that it had sponsored.
Meanwhile, the company plowed ahead with plans to build the compressor station ― until a federal court intervened in early 2020, overturning the permit because Dominion had failed to resolve questions about how emissions would affect Union Hill.
It had taken Union Hill activists five years to get redress from the courts.
But a similar fight in a largely white and affluent community played out much differently. Three hours north, in Charles County, Maryland, Dominion spent two years planning another compressor station for the Eastern Market Access project. Then the Mount Vernon Ladies Association intervened, noting that the project would sully the view from President George Washington’s plantation across the Potomac River in Virginia. Four months after the society group joined local environmentalists in opposing the compressor station, Dominion canceled its plans.
It’s difficult to say how Farrell’s personal views have factored into company positions. But critics argue that redevelopment schemes that Farrell supported as a real estate investor, independent of his work at Dominion, have shown a similar disregard for Black history and communities.
In 2017, Farrell led a group of developers pushing a $1.5 billion project to rebuild a 10-block swath of downtown Richmond into a new arena, hotel, offices and luxury apartments. He and his co-investors dubbed the planned development Navy Hill after a Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for highways. That clearance demolished landmarks and displaced more than 1,000 families. This time, Farrell lined up the support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), who is Black and has recently expedited the removal of Confederate monuments in response to the new protests against racism. Stoney received $10,000 from Dominion during his first year in office and announced in 2018 that he planned to continue accepting donations from the powerful utility.
While the project’s wealthy backers promised some funding, the city planned to largely finance the redevelopment through bond market debt. The proposal swore off tax hikes. But the need to pay off that bond debt threatened to divert funding from city services for decades to come, risking more budget cuts at a moment when municipal deficits were already triggering increased austerity.
Many also feared the project would gentrify a historically Black area of the city and make the neighborhood unaffordable for its longtime residents.
A November 2019 editorial in the Richmond Free Press, a weekly newspaper serving the city’s Black community, savaged the project. The editorial board called the plan “a travesty” that risked “leaving the taxpayers … stuck with the bill for the rising costs of city services.” Any new municipal revenue from the project would end up going toward paying off the new arena, the newspaper concluded.
“With this latest scheme, our community once again winds up as losers,” the editorial stated. “Only Mr. Farrell and friends are benefiting from this project and the charade being perpetrated to pull it off.”
There was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy.Chelsea Wise, organizer and host of the Richmond radio show “Race Capitol”
Chelsea Wise, an organizer and host of the Richmond politics radio show “Race Capitol,” said she saw members of her family holding up picket signs supporting the project at a key city council hearing. When she confronted them, they said they’d been offered $25 to show support.
“I like to joke that, after that, Thanksgiving was very different,” Wise said.
But the project was no laughing matter, she said. Wise took to calling the Navy Hill proposal “the second wave of the Bartholomew project,” a reference to the displacement of Black families during the 1960s under city planner Harland Bartholomew.
Among Navy Hill supporters, “there was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy,” Wise said. “This project would hurt Black people.”
The Richmond Free Press suggested the paltry rate at which Farrell’s group compensated picketers was an insult unto itself. “Sadly, it shows how deep poverty and depression is within Richmond’s African-American community that $25 can get people to show up and hold signs at a City Council meeting,” the editorial read.
In February, the Richmond City Council voted for a resolution that effectively killed the project.
“While the council resolution didn’t name him, the development proposal process did not reflect civic needs so much as the interests of one man in particular: Navy Hill’s leader and Dominion Energy’s chief executive, Tom Farrell, who has been arguing for a new Richmond arena for almost a decade,” Richard Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, wrote in a February op-ed in Style Weekly, Richmond’s alt-weekly newspaper.
Electricity rates are another area where the public interest in Virginia has been increasingly at odds with Farrell’s. In 2007, a hastily passed law proposed and backed by lawmakers who received donations from Dominion restricted the State Corporation Commission’s ability to police the utility rates the company charges. Between 2009 and 2018, the company overcharged Virginians by an average of $234 million per year, according to analysis by the advocacy group Clean Virginia. In 2018 alone, state regulators found that the company overcharged ratepayers by nearly $300 million, which averaged out to an extra $113 per customer for the year.
Dominion also asked to raise the percentage of its revenues it could keep as profit ― a request that regulators rejected last November. Now the company wants to raise rates by as much as $50 a month to help cover the cost of complying with Virginia’s new renewable energy targets.
That would come on top of the financial tsunami ratepayers already face in the months ahead as unemployment in Virginia sits at roughly 10% and workers struggle to make rent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia extended its moratorium on utility service shutoffs for nonpayment until the end of August. Dominion said it will maintain the policy until Oct. 15.
By then, when colder weather risks inflaming the coronavirus infection rate, thousands could lose access to electricity in the state with the seventh-highest average monthly residential electric bill in the country. (Not to mention the other states where Dominion operates. The company said it will apply the same Oct. 15 endpoint to all eight states it serves.)
The risk of losing electricity, advocates say, will fall disproportionately on communities of color. Median-income families in Richmond and Virginia Beach, for example, spent between 3% and 4% of household income on utilities, according to 2013 data from the progressive nonprofit New Virginia Majority. But Black households in the same two cities spent 8% and 10%, respectively. Latino households spent about 6%.
“If you look at what’s actually affordable, paying the current bill plus catching up on arrearage that may have been accumulated during COVID, that may be hard to accommodate,” said Dana Wiggins, director of the Center for Community Outreach and Affordable Clean Energy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “When you take into account that they have been overcharged over a long period of time, it makes it very difficult.”
Dominion, meanwhile, increased its dividend to shareholders in February and then paid them an equivalent sum in June.
Had the nearly $3 billion Dominion spent on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline gone instead toward solar and wind projects, it would have likely lowered the cost of Virginia’s effort to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045.
But Farrell has long maintained that fossil fuels are the past and the future. Until early July, Dominion owned an entire gas transmission and storage subsidiary separate from its utility business. “We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time with renewable energy, but we’re still in the age of fossil fuels, whether we like it or not,” Farrell said in a 2015 speech to regional business leaders. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of it is going to come from fossil fuels, as I said, for many decades to come.”
The election of President Donald Trump, a fossil fuel hardliner, only cemented those views. “We need to acknowledge we are an energy superpower and start acting like it,” Farrell said in a July 2017 lecture to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “Instead of trying to keep it all in the ground.”
Thanks to that mindset, Virginia still produces about 63% of its electricity from fossil fuels, compared to 7% from renewables, according to federal figures. The new state rules require that 26% of electricity come from renewables by 2025. In a lone on-the-record statement to HuffPost, a Dominion spokesman said: “We intend to comply with that.”
But climate change’s mounting toll of more disastrous storms, heat waves and flooding show that just meeting that minimum standard is insufficient and “Dominion needs new leadership,” said Harrison Wallace, a community organizer and the Virginia director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional grassroots environmental group.
“The leadership of our utility monopoly should at least represent the changing tide in politics and how climate is affecting our planet,” he said.
Farrell’s movie may offer the most damning indication that the executive is out of step with the current moment. The $6 million film ― which received $1 million in public funding via a state filmmaking tax credit ― was widely panned for its historical revisionism.
The script for “Field of Lost Shoes,” which Farrell co-wrote, depicts its Confederate heroes at the Virginia Military Institute as deeply conflicted over slavery.
Historian Jeffrey Evan Brooks complained in a review that a “black character named Old Judge, who runs the VMI bakery, is inserted into the story in order to give the cadets a slave with whom to sympathize when he runs into trouble.” In The Hollywood Reporter, critic Frank Scheck said that the movie “doesn’t exactly score points for objectivity.”
“Amazingly, none of the staunch Southerners seem to hold any negative feelings toward blacks,” Scheck wrote.
At one point, a main character suggests as a given that the newly independent Confederacy must abolish slavery after winning the war. Another insists: “This war is not about slavery. It’s about money. It always is.”
For a white person in the Civil War era to express skepticism about slavery, much less outright support for abolition, would “have been an untenable position in Virginia,” said historian Rev. Benjamin Campbell, author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” a book about the city’s failure to confront the oppressive racist policies that shaped its past.
“A white person would have been thrown out of the state,” Campbell said. “A newspaper editor who simply questioned slavery was challenged to a duel in 1848 and killed in Virginia.”
Politically acceptable opinions at the time, he said, ranged from full-throated support of slavery to “advocating the American Colonization Society,” which was an effort to deport freed Black people to Africa and establish a U.S. trading colony there.
Campbell said he knows Farrell, who is in his mid-60s, personally and the Dominion boss is “not a rigid racist.”
“He’s a Virginian of his generation, and he’s a person in moral and emotional transition like all the rest of us,” Campbell said. “But it may not be fast enough.”
An internal text message HuffPost obtained showed what appeared to be public relations employees worrying about a “total of three negative pieces brewing” that will “try to tar us,” including this story, an op-ed due out in a local newspaper criticizing a lawmaker for accepting Dominion contributions, and an investigation in another outlet examining the company’s political donations. The texting thread of five Richmond-area numbers, which appears to have accidentally included this reporter, suggested the publications were “brewing all in rough coordination,” though HuffPost had no prior knowledge of the other two pieces.
Farrell’s role should “certainly be questioned” in the wake of the pipeline project, said Barber, a towering figure of the current civil rights movement.
“A company that would attempt to do all this to communities and put its customers through this kind of fight should be challenged in so many ways,” he said. “Racism is not just about symbolism, it’s about substance.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director
Clean Virginia Supports Del. Jay Jones’ Bid for Attorney General with $100,000 Contribution
An additional $145,000 goes to an unprecedented 50 General Assembly members who refuse contributions from Virginia utility monopolies
July 15, 2020
Charlottesville — Clean Virginia Fund, the Political Action Committee associated with advocacy organization Clean Virginia, contributed $100,000 to Delegate Jay Jones’ (D-Norfolk) campaign for Attorney General, which he formally announced this week, and a total of $145,000 to 50 members of the Virginia Assembly during the second quarter of 2020. Over a third of the Virginia General Assembly now share a principled stance against accepting contributions from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, the utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly, and do not own stock in these corporations. Clean Virginia’s second-quarter giving totals $445,000, including $100,000 contributions to both Senator Jennifer McClellan’s (D-Richmond) and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy’s (D-Prince William) campaigns for Governor, announced last month.
“Delegate Jones has demonstrated how hard he is willing to fight for everyday Virginians as evidenced by his bipartisan leadership during the 2020 General Assembly session to advance fair energy bills in Virginia,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Virginians deserve a leader like Jones who will prioritize justice for Virginia families and small businesses rather than protecting the excess profits of powerful utility monopolies.”
The 50 recipients of standard contributions from Clean Virginia Fund represent over a third of the Virginia General Assembly and include 41 House Delegates and nine State Senators. Clean Virginia contributes $2,500 and $5,000 annually to Delegate and Senators, respectively, who refuse political contributions from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly.
“Virginia is entering a new era of politics in which an emergent bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rightfully fights for fair energy policy that advances affordable clean energy, lowers prices, and brings new, high-paying jobs into the Commonwealth,” Gilmore said. “Dominion Energy has manipulated the General Assembly for too long, writing the rules that allowed them to overcharge Virginians by over $2.3 billion in the past decade. Now, over a third of Virginia’s legislative body considers the monopoly’s money toxic. It is only a matter of time and continued public pressure before the General Assembly bans Dominion’s political contributions for good and finally extinguishes the monopoly’s unchecked legalized corruption.”
Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy. Clean Virginia’s funding is provided by founder Michael Bills. For details on Clean Virginia’s financial reports and political giving, please visit our listing at Virginia’s Public Access Project.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director, firstname.lastname@example.org, 828-817-3328
Clean Virginia Spends $200,000 in First Contribution to Candidates for Virginia Governor
Sen. McClellan and Del. Carroll Foy each receive $100,000 for gubernatorial bids
June 25, 2020
Charlottesville, VA — Clean Virginia Fund, Clean Virginia’s Political Action Committee, has donated $100,000 each to two candidates for Virginia Governor: Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), who have both launched gubernatorial campaigns.
“Senator McClellan and Delegate Carroll Foy have both proven their commitments to put the interests of Virginians before those of our utility monopolies and have championed strong action on climate change, environmental and economic justice, and fair energy bills during their time in the General Assembly. All communities in Virginia have benefited from their compassionate leadership and sophisticated policy understanding,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Clean Virginia is honored to support both of these exceptional candidates, either of whose election to Governor would be historic for our commonwealth and our country. We are prepared to do everything in our power to ensure that Virginia’s next governor will fight for Virginians, not corporate special interests.”
Both candidates share a principled stance against accepting campaign contributions from regulated monopolies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, including their employed registered lobbyists, and do not own stock in these corporations.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy have both championed legislation that would advance clean energy, protect the environment, and promote good governance:
During the 2018-2019 Virginia General Assembly election cycle, Clean Virginia Fund and its Board Chair Michael Bills contributed over $1.8 million to Democratic and Republican candidates who demonstrated a principled stance against accepting contributions from utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly. Clean Virginia Fund anticipates an even larger involvement in Virginia’s 2021 primary and general election cycles to support candidates who prioritize Virginians over corporate interests and who are committed to greater transparency and ethics in government.
Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy. For more information, visit cleanvirginia.org.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director
BREAKING: SCC Extends Utility Disconnection Ban Until August Legislative Session
A bipartisan group of nearly 60 lawmakers requested additional data to develop comprehensive legislative response
June 12, 2020
Charlottesville — Today the Virginia State Corporation Commission issued an order extending the current utility disconnection ban until August 31 to “allow time for the General Assembly to meet in special session to address the COVID-19 crisis in a more comprehensive manner.” The SCC also directed utilities to offer up to 12-month extended repayment plans for residential and small-business customers and compelled utilities to submit data on customer arrearages, although the order fell well short of compelling the full range of data legislators requested. In response, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said:
“Virginians can rest easier knowing that their power won’t be shut off during the hottest months of the summer. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) heard a conclusive message from over a third of the General Assembly, dozens of advocacy organizations, the Office of the Attorney General, and hundreds of Virginians: ‘no disconnections during an economic and public health crisis.’ Virginian families and businesses should never face electricity shut-offs while Dominion Energy transfers hundreds of millions in overcharges every year from Virginians to its top executives and Wall Street shareholders, including a record-high dividend payout this month.”
“A comprehensive legislative response that treats all parties fairly requires absolute transparency. The SCC should comply with the full extent of the requests from lawmakers and advocacy groups for additional data from utilities regarding earnings, revenues, and access to capital. While the SCC’s order represents progress, it falls short in providing legislators all the information they need to ensure that Virginia consumers and businesses do not bear the brunt of COVID-related hardship while Dominion Energy executives and shareholders enjoy record profits and payouts.”
Several key provisions included in the SCC’s order that will apply during the extended moratorium:
If state regulators were hoping to get clarity from utilities and the public on whether to extend Virginia’s moratorium on service disconnections due to non-payment of bills, they may be sorely disappointed.
Keep the moratorium mandatory? Allow utilities flexibility to impose measures as needed? Get rid of the ban entirely?
Little consensus has emerged from the welter of recommendations put forward by investor-owned utilities, 58 legislators, environmental and consumer protection groups, state electric cooperatives and the Attorney General’s Office as of the June 5 deadline for input set by the State Corporation Commission.
Since March 12, utilities throughout Virginia have not been disconnecting water, electric, sewer or gas service when customers fail to pay their bills in an effort to keep these vital services stable even as the spread of COVID-19 has led to record unemployment levels.
While many utilities voluntarily instituted moratoria on disconnections in the wake of Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of emergency, the SCC on March 16 made the ban mandatory. Commissioners later extended their order to remain in force until June 15.
But at the end of May, almost three weeks before the moratorium was set to expire, regulators declared the situation “is not sustainable on an unlimited basis in the absence of programs to ensure that the growing costs of unpaid bills are not unfairly shifted to other customers.”
What to do was a question the SCC put before the public, soliciting input on not only whether the moratorium should be extended or made voluntarily but also what “programs and mechanisms, public or private” should be used “to ensure that the costs of unpaid utility bills are defrayed and will not result in even higher costs on other utility customers.”
Like most policy decisions related to COVID-19, responses have been divided, even among utilities structured along the same lines.
In one camp, encompassing most of the state’s utilities that filed responses, are advocates of a more voluntary approach to disconnections that would give utilities more leeway to craft individual solutions.
Among this group is Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, which is arguing for the SCC to continue its moratorium on a voluntary basis for four more months, contending that “the proper course of action may not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” even as it pledges to keep its own ban in place until Oct. 14.
“The company also supports an extension of the moratorium on a mandatory basis, but recognizes … that a suspension of disconnections can have a disparate impact on utilities based on a number of relevant factors,” the utility wrote in a June 1 filing.
Other utilities were less willing to embrace an extension of the moratorium. Washington Gas Light and Aqua Virginia argued for an end to the ban but expressed openness to the idea of regulators revamping it as a voluntary measure.
“Every utility has the best knowledge of all aspects of its own business operations, including its customer profiles, financial situation and cash flow, as well as billing system capabilities, and is therefore best positioned to voluntarily implement appropriate measures to reduce service disconnections and extend payment options,” wrote Washington Gas Light, which also pointed out the difficulty it could face if the three jurisdictions it serves — Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. — adopt different policies.
Also backing the voluntary path, at least for themselves, are Virginia’s 13 electric cooperatives, a group that has elicited special concern from state regulators because of their greater vulnerability to financial turmoil.
“The Cooperatives simply cannot continue down the current, unsustainable path,” the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, which is representing the state’s co-ops in the case, wrote in a June 5 filing. Their solution? Replace the mandatory moratorium with voluntary measures for cooperatives, with a “statewide floor of member-consumer protections” instituted as a safeguard.
For at least some of these co-ops, accounts with past due balances have risen sharply over the course of the pandemic. One large co-op has seen 90-day past due accounts rise 216 percent compared to last year. At a small co-op the increase has been a staggering 7,600 percent.
But while investor-owned utilities like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have tools like shareholders and greater access to capital that they can bring to bear as the number of unpaid bills rises, cooperatives, as entities owned wholly by their members, face a different situation.
“As member-owned utilities, there are no separate shareholders which could be called upon to bear losses associated with uncollectible debt; all remaining Cooperative ratepayers are and will be affected by these losses,” wrote the association.
Just as vigorous in their arguments are another faction, counting among its members Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and a range of environmental and consumer protection groups, that opposes any lifting of the mandatory moratorium on the grounds that the pandemic and its attendant economic fallout are still ongoing.
“The Centers for Disease Control reports that Virginia has experienced more than 7,500 confirmed cases in the past seven days (ending June 3rd), which is the fifth highest among all states and represents one-sixth of all cases since the crisis began,” wrote Appalachian Voices in a letter to the SCC. “Further, more than 400,000 residents remained unemployed during the week of May 23rd.”
The Attorney General’s office also pointed to the continued state of emergency as proof of the need for the ban to remain in place.
“The existing moratorium should be extended to a point in the future after Virginia’s economy has had an opportunity to resume, allowing impacted citizens an opportunity to regain some financial footing,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Mitch Burton.
Groups varied in how long the moratorium should stay in force. Appalachian Voices threw its support behind Dominion’s four-month extension while also noting that North Carolina has extended its disconnection moratorium through July 29. A group of 11 environmental and consumer groups including the Southern Environmental Law Center and Clean Virginia advocated for the ban to last through “at least the end of the summer cooling season.” A bipartisan collection of 58 state senators and delegates suggested Aug. 31. The Attorney General’s Office provided no specific date.
Finally, in a curious in-between position, Kentucky Utilities, whose Old Dominion Power unit serves about 30,000 Virginians in five southwestern coalfield counties, made no recommendation about when the moratorium should be lifted but emphasized that it should not be made voluntary.
“Voluntary measures,” the company contended, “could lead to different treatment of similarly situated customers.”
Further complicating the debate is the contention by a number of groups that the SCC’s concern that unpaid bills from the pandemic will result in cost-shifting to other customers may be misplaced.
“There are not enough facts currently in the record to know with any degree of certainty the revenue impact that may (if at all) be associated with the COVID-19 emergency and unpaid utility bills,” said Burton of the Attorney General’s Office. “Without having evidence in the record as to a reasonable estimate of COVID-19’s impact on utility revenues, it is impossible to say what would or could constitute sufficient funding to defray any such revenue reductions.”
The lack of hard data was also raised by other participants — most notably, the bipartisan group of 58 state senators and delegates who are asking the moratorium to remain in place until Aug. 31, with the expectation that the General Assembly will address the coronavirus crisis in a special session.
“Consideration of potential legislative options is hindered, however, by insufficient data on the extent of the problem,” the legislators wrote before asking the SCC to require all utilities to provide a slate of data, including current arrearage balances and historic averages, utility revenue and earnings history and debt service reserves.
Furthermore, many of these groups contended, lifting the moratorium is not the only way to defray ratepayer costs.
Under state law, no rate increase can occur unless approved by the SCC during a formal rate review, pointed out the 11-member environmental group represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The potential cost shift to ‘paying customers’ will only come – if it comes at all – in a future general rate case. There, the Commission will evaluate the totality of evidence to determine whether a rate increase is justified, and that evidence will include far more than the revenues lost during the moratorium,” the group argued.
Three alternative paths were put forward by the Attorney General’s Office. One, the application by smaller utilities for federal relief funds, has already been adopted by four of Virginia’s electric cooperatives.
Citing among other factors the need to mitigate the moratorium’s financial impact, these co-ops have been awarded loans through the Paycheck Protection Program established by the federal CARES Act, with BARC Electric Cooperative netting about $1.1 million, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative $1.2 million, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative $2.5 million and Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative just shy of $4 million.
Larger utilities, wrote Burton, could seek emergency rate reductions for “customers of any utility for which there is evidence of excessive revenues” — the latter an apparent allusion to Dominion Energy, which the SCC has repeatedly reported is overearning by hundreds of millions of dollars — or “it is possible that utility management could simply share the financial burden with shareholders, as other businesses impacted by the pandemic have had to do.”
While the SCC has not set a date for its decision, the current moratorium is set to expire June 15.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director
SCC Must Extend Moratorium on Utility Disconnections; Legislative Action Next Step
Environmental groups unite behind call for extension and data release from utilities
June 5, 2020
Charlottesville — Eleven environmental and marginalized community advocacy organizations today joined statewide calls for the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) to extend its moratorium on utility disconnections during the COVID-19 pandemic. A joint comment submitted by the organizations questions the SCC’s assumption that a moratorium extension will harm ratepayers given the lack of available and relevant data from regulated public utilities including how many Virginia customers have unpaid utility bills, the reserves of each utility, and the amount utilities have overcharged customers in previous years.
The comment includes:
Virginia’s largest electricity provider Dominion Energy has declined to comment on how many residential and non-residential customers have unpaid bills or were disconnected in the current year. Dominion has overcharged its customers by $1.3 billion since 2015.
The SCC’s state order suspending disconnections is set to expire on June 15, 2020. Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Virginia, Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, League of Conservation Voters Virginia, New Virginia Majority, Piedmont Environmental Council, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia Conservation Network, and Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy signed the joint comment to the SCC, due today.
Quotes From Participating Organizations:
Harrison Wallace, Chesapeake Climate Action Network – Virginia Director
“It’s the SCC’s job to protect consumers, not corporations. But Dominion is planning to give their shareholders fat dividends during a time of economic turmoil and also planning to give out targeted grants in the name of justice. If they can do that, they can help struggling families keep the lights on and cool their homes during the hottest season of the year.”
Brennan Gilmore, Clean Virginia – Executive Director
“Families should not face electricity disconnection while Dominion Energy unjustly transfers hundreds of millions in overcharges every year from Virginians to its top executives and shareholders. The State Corporation Commission should provide relief to struggling Virginia families and small businesses by extending the moratorium on utility disconnections and demanding transparency from utilities to better understand the scope of the problem.”
Jo Anne St. Clair, Climate Action Alliance of the Valley – Chair
“The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley believes that the SCC must be mindful that calamities like the current pandemic, and like the consequences of our ongoing climate crisis, usually burden those who are least able to adapt and recover quickly. The pandemic is not over; its negative economic effects will be with us all, especially the many Virginians who chronically have a serious burden meeting their utility bills. The SCC must consider this reality.”
Michael Town, League of Conservation Voters Virginia – Executive Director
“We should not be debating whether or not to extend a moratorium on utility shut-offs in the midst of a global pandemic and economic depression that is especially devastating for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “The moratorium should remain in place until the pandemic is over and Virginia is able to implement just and fair utility reform to ensure our most vulnerable citizens are never put in this position again.”
Kenneth Gilliam, New Virginia Majority – Policy Director
“We are very much still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had greater economic and health effects, likely to be long-lasting, on low-income households and Latinx and Black communities in Virginia. The economic repercussions of the crisis are not equally distributed by race or income across the state; however, measures, such as the moratorium on utility disconnections, provides much needed fiscal relief to low-income customers who generally pay more for energy and are predicted to have greater loss of income throughout the rest of 2020, and well into 2021.”
Kate Addleson, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter – Director
“The COVID 19 pandemic has thrown Virginia into a serious economic downturn with many families across the commonwealth facing job loss and financial strain. With Virginia’s hottest months still ahead of us, the SCC must extend the moratorium on utility shut-offs at least through the summer to ensure families and businesses aren’t subject to life-threatening heat. The commission should take steps to offer utility bill assistance and extended repayment programs during this difficult time.”
Will Cleveland, Southern Environmental Law Center – Senior Attorney
“With the summer heat bearing down on us, we must do all we can to help people who, as a result of this pandemic, struggle to pay their utility bills. Expanded utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs, bill assistance and payment plans, and data collection are necessary to help all Virginians come through this difficult time.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director
Dominion Energy’s costly new energy blueprint fails to meet challenge of Virginia’s clean energy transition
Clean Virginia: Plan approval should depend on full rate case review of Dominion’s spending
Richmond, VA — Dominion Energy released its latest Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) today, projecting significant rate increases and an increased reliance on short-term fracked gas, despite the monopoly’s recent public commitments to clean energy.
“After decades of delays and resistance, Dominion has been forced by recent law to move forward on clean energy. The new Integrated Resource Plan appears after an initial review to be a flawed and imperfect reflection of the clean energy directive from the Governor, General Assembly, and citizens of the Commonwealth,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.
The utility monopoly filed its latest IRP to account for the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which Governor Ralph Northam signed into law last month. Primary findings from the plan include:
“Dominion is proposing a substantial overhaul of the way electricity is generated, consumed, and stored, all of which will have a significant economic impact for Virginian families and businesses,” Gilmore said. “The new construction envisioned by its IRP will generate significant shareholder profit for Dominion, but major rate increases for customers. However, the utility monopoly has aggressively opposed any attempt at a transparent review of its rates, despite overcharging Virginians by $1.3 billion since 2015. Dominion’s continued unwarranted reliance on fossil fuels and evasion of a fair review of rates — particularly at a time of unprecedented hardship — is deeply irresponsible. The General Assembly should urgently mandate regulators to conduct a full, transparent review of Dominion’s current rate structure in light of its massive spending plans.”
Attempts to expand on Dominion Energy’s pilot program to connect electric school buses to the grid sputtered out when none of the competing bills advanced in the Virginia General Assembly, which wrapped up its annual session at the beginning of the month.
But the effort is far from dead. Both the utility and clean air advocates are figuring out how to jumpstart measures with sufficient legislative appeal next year.
In the meantime, 16 transportation directors at school districts statewide are figuring out how to incorporate their current allotment of e-buses into their fleets starting this autumn.
They’re moving ahead even as Gov. Ralph Northam opted to keep public schools shuttered through the end of this academic year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Dominion’s starter plan, announced last August, invited schools within its service territory to apply for a share of 50 electric buses. The utility selected 16 localities — from Alexandria to Waynesboro, alphabetically — based on the value of batteries to the local grid. Bus batteries will serve as energy storage to support the integration of distributed renewable energy.
Fairfax County resident Bobby Monacella is thrilled that her school district in northern Virginia, where her two daughters are enrolled, is in line for eight of those 50 electric buses. And as a climate activist who co-leads her county’s chapter of Mothers Out Front, she was hopeful lawmakers could broaden the reach of green buses in a fast, fair and far-reaching manner.
When Monacella discovered a bill designed to replace 1,000 additional dirty diesel-powered buses in Dominion’s service area with clean electric models by 2025 was too utility-centric, she and other mothers acted.
They collaborated with Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat, to draft counter legislation championed by an array of conservation groups.
Keam’s initiative, HB 1140, would have allowed school districts across the state to tap into a new block grant program to pay for the difference between a diesel and a more expensive electric bus. As well, it prioritized bus replacements in districts with high rates of air pollution and asthma.
“We wanted something that was run in the best interest of residents, not Dominion stockholders,” Monacella said about her efforts to counter a measure “that would cost ratepayers a lot of money, help with peak shaving and be a huge cash cow for Dominion.”
One daunting proposition for her group is shaping a new bill for next year that identifies a specific funding source acceptable to the finance and appropriations committees.
“We’re starting to hammer away at this,” she said. “We don’t want to see nothing happen. And we don’t want to see Dominion make out like a bandit either.”
After announcing its pilot, Dominion sought legislation to enact phase two, which would replace another 1,000 diesel buses with electric models by 2025.
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas, who represents a section of the Hampton Roads metropolitan region, introduced several utility-friendly bills to cover that second phase. After SB 988 went nowhere, SB 1096, inserted at almost the last minute, also failed.
A separate measure was deep-sixed in the House of Delegates. House Bill 75 was sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, a Democrat who represents the Falls Church section of Fairfax County. It called for program costs, including the incremental cost of the electric buses, to be recoverable through the utility’s base rates.
Clean Virginia executive director Brennan Gilmore criticized SB 1096 as a measure that would have raised customers’ bills and handcuffed public schools to the utility’s profit incentives.
“While earlier versions of companion legislation in the House would have balanced the goal of electrifying school transportation with ratepayer protection, SB 1096 was a clear example of monopoly overreach,” he said.
Dominion spokesperson Samantha Moore said it was unfortunate that none of the three proposals related to electric school buses was enacted into law. She evidently was not including Keam’s bill in her tally.
She emphasized that electric buses benefit customers and communities with cleaner air, cost savings for school districts and enhanced grid reliability, but didn’t offer any specifics on how the state’s largest utility would proceed.
We “are excited to get the first 50 buses on the road while we continue exploring ways to expand the program,” Moore said.
Dominion’s overarching proposal also includes a phase three, which would replace all worn out diesel buses with electric models by 2030. That goal applies only to buses in the utility’s footprint and does not mean that the entire bus fleet would be electrified within that window.
About 3,500 of the 17,000 school buses statewide are older than 10 years.
Meanwhile, the public schools in Fairfax County are anticipating the arrival of their first four electric buses in August and another four in December.
Francine Furby, the school district’s transportation director for six years, said charging infrastructure would be installed at the Stonecroft Transportation Facility near Westfield High School because it meets Dominion’s grid-access requirements. The electric buses would cover routes in adjacent neighborhoods.
Attorneys from the school district and the utility are talking to make sure they have a doable and understandable agreement, she said.
“It’s new to us and it’s new to them,” said Furby, who manages a fleet of 1,625 buses. “Starting small is best because it’s a new program. We’re eager to get the buses in, put them in our operations and work out any kinks.”
Dominion selected Thomas Built Buses as the vendor. At $325,000, the price of an electric school bus is more than three times that of a diesel one.
Under the pilot, school districts pay the cost of a regular diesel bus—roughly $100,000—and Dominion Energy covers the difference. Exact costs for each party depend on bus features such as air conditioning.
Dominion’s total cost for the pilot won’t exceed $16 million, Moore said.
“This is a big project — it’s huge,” Furby said. “I definitely see the rewards and am very excited to be part of it.”
While Furby, who has 27 years in the transportation business, is enthusiastic about the environmental and health benefits of an e-bus future, she is also dealing with present-day stresses. The looming threat of COVID-19 has placed many Fairfax County families in financial jeopardy.
For this article, she was interviewed from a parking lot in Herndon where the school district’s food service staffers were delivering free meals to students who qualified. Diesel buses are at-the-ready to supplement vans and jointly cover 13 different routes in the district.
“We are supporting the food and nutrition staff,” she said. “We’re trying to reach families in need.”
Monacella figures having the first round of electric school buses on the ground this fall will help legislators eventually find an equitable way forward.
“Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna,” she said, “but I want it to happen as soon as possible because of climate change.”