Virginia’s Energy Kingpin Could Finally Face A Reckoning Over Race
July 23, 2020

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.

A Tale Of Two Compressor Stations

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.

Building Over Black History

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.

The Rates Card

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 Lost Cause Film

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.”

Munley: Virginia doesn’t need McAuliffe, the pipeline cheerleader
July 23, 2020

By Cynthia Munley

Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has recently raised $1.7 million in political cash, threatening a potential second term run as Virginia governor. McAuliffe wants to waltz back onto Virginia’s political landscape after literally mutilating our region with a miles-long pipeline ridge scar that disfigures our once-intact Blue Ridge Mountains. With his double boondoggle “pipelines-for-Virginia” idea, McAuliffe’s Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines (ACP and MVP) imposed heartbreaking damage to our region and communities still fighting to preserve their safety.

Can Virginia withstand any more McAuliffe wheeling-and-dealing? In an April 1, 2020, interview, McAuliffe boasted a scandal-free, pro-business administration. But under McAuliffe, Charlottesville saw a policing failure in the 2017 white nationalist rally and the state gave $1.4 million to a no-show Chinese company. Then, there are McAuliffe’s pipelines.

ACP’s cancellation validates opponents’ argument that these pipelines are unneeded. Dominion immediately endorsed the Clean Economy Act — demonstrating that stopping pipelines frees clean energy investment. Even the Dominion and Duke builders decided that ACP was an expensive dud. McAuliffe flippantly dismissed the ACP failure as needing to pass regulatory review while expressing no regret for the suffering and damage his pipelines caused by granting them eminent domain for private profit. McAuliffe demonstrates that men with power and no empathy can inflict colossal harms without remorse.

Recently defending Virginia pipelines, McAuliffe said, “You can’t have manufacturing jobs without cheap energy.” The cluelessness of this statement demonstrates that McAuliffe is either uninformed that MVP raises gas rates despite plentiful, cheaper existing sources, or he thinks Virginians don’t notice his bait-and-switch pipeline rip-offs. Business does not thrive on increased energy costs for bogus infrastructure. Also, MVP’s 139 granted variances mean the project is significantly altered from the one originally permitted, consuming more land than originally proposed, including around 6,000 acres of prime farmland.

McAuliffe’s pay-to-play schemes with campaign contributors Dominion Energy and MVP are as shameful as the epic damage they inflict. McAuliffe’s deals absolved industry from all damages for a paltry $58 million for ACP and $27.5 million for MVP for water and mountain resources and $2.5 million for MVP damage to historic resources. MVP is a textbook boondoggle: “wasteful or pointless activity that gives the appearance of having value.” This is not governing, but exploitation of the Virginians who elected him. Virginia would do better electing a candidate free from Dominion Energy’s money.

McAuliffe knowingly threw Virginia into a predatory state and federal regulatory system where most advantages were rigged for industry. Landowners and environmentalists were left to fight with a stack of disadvantages including a McAuliffe-Northam Department of Environmental Quality apparently following the lax, anti-regulatory, pro-industry Trump EPA model. Adding insult, after hosting the calamitous MVP over Virginia Appalachia’s unsuitably steep and karst-ridden terrain, Virginia ratepayers are then expected to help pay for MVP — the most expensive per-mile pipeline.

McAuliffe offered up Virginia’s waters as prey for MVP — which routed around citizen rights with state and federal agency complicity. Virginia’s own water quality standards demand clean waters where pollution may not interfere directly or indirectly with Virginians’ rightful use for swimming, boating, fishing or enjoyment of the beauty of these natural places. Our federal rights under the Clean Water and the Endangered Species acts guarantee protection of headwaters as “critical to the health of … downstream communities.” In our region of springs and pristine waters (including Bent Mountain’s Tier 3 and trout stream upland Roanoke River headwaters), protection has been delayed or ignored by zombie federal agencies.

The sometimes mud-filled Roanoke River and countless streams lawlessly choked with MVP construction sediment deny all these rights and may have made the Roanoke Logperch extinct after an orchestrated regional decades-long comeback.

A 2015 Key-Log Economics study estimated the total cost to an eight-county region in the Virginias at around $8.9 billion, including $119.1 to $130.8 million yearly post-construction loss in land cover, property tax revenues and dampened economic growth. On every front, the MVP harms have grown from these initial estimates. Despite an unrelenting opposition to protect Virginia’s resources, MVP exploited unjust “tolling orders” to prematurely and recklessly permit and construct MVP while the DEQ, through inaction, helped MVP bulldoze Virginians’ rights to property, clean water and natural heritage.

The billions Virginians lose from McAuliffe’s pipelines become the McAuliffe gift that “keeps on giving.” Laws that make America better and Virginia cleaner have been boldly violated. McAuliffe should not be empowered to “play us again” with secret deals and destructive scams that permanently diminish Virginia’s resources. Terry McAuliffe’s big money and big deals are too expensive for Virginia.
BREAKING: Dominion and Duke Energy Cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline
July 5, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director

cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

Dominion and Duke Energy Cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Strong Opposition Across Virginia and Legal Challenges Render Project Unviable

July 5, 2020

Charlottesville, VA — Dominion Energy announced today the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In response, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said:

“Today marks a huge win for Virginia. For years, communities across the Commonwealth have fervently opposed the unnecessary and dangerous Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the most acute manifestation of Dominion Energy’s commitment to putting its financial interests above the health and economic well-being of Virginians. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many Virginians, from community activists to environmental lawyers, who successfully fought this project. We also thank Virginia’s General Assembly, which unanimously passed a law this year that created serious obstacles for Dominion Energy to pass the ballooning cost of the pipeline onto Virginians.”

“As Virginia faces an unprecedented climate crisis and economic uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that our utilities put public service above maximizing profit. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was never in the best interests of Virginians. That it was allowed to fester as long as it did is evidence of a fundamentally broken utility system that will only be remediated through structural reform. While we welcome the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s demise, this only marks the end to one symptom of the structural problem of Virginia’s monopoly utilities–the problem itself remains. We must all remain vigilant and continue working towards the creation of a sensical utility system that prioritizes the public interest and prevents projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from ever seeing the light of day.”

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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.

Dominion Energy’s costly new energy blueprint fails to meet challenge of Virginia’s clean energy transition
May 1, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director
cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

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:

  • Significant rate increases. Dominion estimates that the cost of its proposal will result in a rate increase of 37% over the next 10 years, with a typical residential customer’s monthly power bill rising by $45.92. Dominion customers already pay among the highest electric bills in the United States and the monopoly has consistently overcharged by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. In advance of any new rate increases, the General Assembly must empower regulators to hold a comprehensive rate case that would set a fair base rate for customers, review Dominion’s spending, and issue refunds for overcharges as appropriate.
  • Declining demand for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion forecasts no new baseload natural gas generation in its IRP, illustrating the declining demand for natural gas to meet Virginia’s energy needs and undermining its justification for the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In its proposal, Dominion includes high-cost combustion turbines, or peaker plants, which would operate only during periods of high demand and do not justify continued investments in a multi-billion-dollar interstate gas pipeline.
  • Inadequate solar and storage resources. Dominion prioritizes the development of new high-cost gas peaking facilities at the expense of low-cost combined renewable and battery storage resources. As utilities across the country invest in plans to meet 100% clean energy goals, Dominion told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “there is not a plan to do that. What we would need is new technology.” The company’s statement underscores the need to increase competition in Virginia’s energy market in order to spur innovation and meet the overwhelming mandate from Virginians to prioritize clean energy.
  • Abandonment of the $19 billion North Anna 3 nuclear plant. Dominion states in its IRP that it has “paused” development of a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna facility. This is further confirmation that  North Anna 3 was never a cost-effective generation project and will not be built, as the office of the Virginia Attorney General warned in 2015. Dominion has already spent over $300 million of customer’s money for North Anna 3, money that otherwise would have been refunded. Clean Virginia detailed the failed North Anna 3 project in the Dominion Scam report. 

“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.”

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Virginia session sets up clean energy investment, Dominion regulations fall flat
March 24, 2020

Virginia lawmakers passed bills during the 2020 legislative session that unlock billions of dollars in potential clean energy investments and continue shifting off of fossil fuels, although proposals to challenge the power of the state’s largest electric utility gained little traction.

Bills that sought to open up the state to retail competition, curb contributions from Virginia’s investor-owned utilities and put stricter regulations on utility earnings were either weakened or passed over.

Dominion Energy Inc. still has a “very strong tool in the toolkit” in Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and the “powerful” Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, said in a March 13 phone interview.

“They still have an ability to use the legislature through that tool, but the wall that that tool provided in the past has been breached and we were able to get around it in a couple places,” Gilmore said.

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on March 2 killed a bipartisan bill that would have given the Virginia State Corporation Commission the ability to lower Dominion Energy Virginia’s base rates and order customer refunds for excess earnings.

The SCC showed in a late August 2019 report that Dominion subsidiary Dominion Energy Virginia and American Electric Power Co. Inc. utility Appalachian Power Co. earned millions in excess revenues for the second year in a row following a reinstatement of rate reviews in 2018. Dominion is now held to a “maximum $50 million rate reduction” following the first review of excessive earnings.

The state Senate committee voted 8-7 to indefinitely table the Fair Energy Bills Act.

“I think that was a loss, but at the same time it exposed just how badly a clean rate case is needed and I think it helped fuel the appetite for more structural reform in the system,” Gilmore said.

Clean Virginia endorsed and contributed to the campaigns of dozens of candidates for the state legislature in the November 2019 general election, all of whom refused to accept money from Dominion.

Democrats then took full control of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in more than 25 years in a legislative shift seen as paving the way for the state to embrace stricter clean energy mandates and join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.

Customer and clean energy advocates said they are seeing signs of change even if direct challenges to power largely fell flat.

“For the past decade, [Dominion has] essentially had their way with the legislature and there wasn’t any point where … they were held to the fire in negotiations around a big energy bill over things like cost containment or competition,” Gilmore said. “They were able to get into the code a lot of incredibly utility-friendly ratemaking provisions. I think the dynamic that we saw during this session was that is just not the case anymore.”

Although Dominion Energy has previously expressed concerns about Virginia’s effort to join RGGI and efforts to deregulate the electricity market, the utility said it will work to slash emissions in line with the state’s new policies.

“We are committed to net-zero carbon and methane emissions company-wide by 2050, including meeting any emissions requirements signed by the Virginia governor as a result of the General Assembly session,” Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said in a March 20 email.

Virginia Clean Economy Act

One significant piece of legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly is Senate Bill 851, known as the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

The legislation essentially phases out coal-fired generation by the end of 2030 and requires Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power to “retire all other electric generating units located in the Commonwealth that emit carbon as a by-product of combusting fuel to generate electricity” by Dec. 31, 2045.

The legislation replaces the state’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard with mandatory annual benchmarks that would eventually require electricity suppliers to produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.

Appalachian Power must procure 100% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2050, while Dominion Energy Virginia must hit that benchmark by 2045.

It also requires Dominion Energy Virginia, known legally as Virginia Electric and Power Co., and Appalachian Power to “retire all generating units principally fueled by oil with a rated capacity in excess of 500 [MW] and all coal-fired electric generating units operating in the Commonwealth” by Dec. 31, 2024. The bill provides an exception for coal plants co-owned with a cooperative utility and for Dominion Energy Virginia’s 624-MW Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, which must be shut down by the end of 2030.

The measure adopts a target for energy storage deployment of 3,100 MW by the end of 2035. A new energy efficiency standard also would apply to both utilities with a 5% energy savings target for Dominion and a 2% target for Appalachian Power by 2025, both from 2019 levels.

“From a Clean Virginia perspective, it was a bit of a mixed bag,” Gilmore said. “From a climate perspective, it’s a great bill.”

Under the legislation, “the construction or purchase” of offshore wind facilities up to 5,200 MW off the Virginia shoreline by Dec. 31, 2024, is in the public interest.

Dominion Energy Virginia in September 2019 announced plans to build the “largest offshore wind project” in the U.S. off the coast of Virginia Beach in three phases of 880 MW each. If approved, the first phase of the $8 billion project would be completed in 2024, with the final phases expected to come online in 2025 and 2026.

“I think there is a pretty big delta between a gold-plated, profit-padding offshore wind deployment and one that is deployed with particular attention to cost and cost overruns,” Gilmore said. “There is some good language in the [Virginia Clean Economy Act] about the SCC’s ability to monitor this process to ensure that there is competitive procurement in a way to keep costs down. We would’ve liked to see more of that language but I think it’s going to bear careful attention in the years to come.”

Virginia set to join RGGI

In February, the General Assembly passed legislation that would lay the groundwork for the state to join RGGI.

The legislation authorizes the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to “establish, implement, and manage an auction program to sell allowances into a market-based trading program consistent with the RGGI program.”

The vote comes after the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board in April 2019 adopted a rule to move forward with linking the state to RGGI and effectively curb total power plant carbon emissions 30% by 2030.

States involved in RGGI use a market-based cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from regional power plants, selling nearly all emissions allowances through auctions and investing proceeds in energy efficiency projects.

Dominion Energy Virginia has previously claimed that linking to RGGI could lead to emissions increases outside the state, a phenomenon known as leakage.

The utility has also claimed that such a move “would raise rates considerably in Virginia” and threaten the company’s competitive retail electric rates.

Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to enact the legislation.

Legislative Session Opens Door for Ambitious Energy Reform in Virginia
March 12, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

Contact: 

Cassady Craighill, cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

March 12, 2020

Clean Virginia: Legislative Session Opens Door for Ambitious Energy Reform in Virginia

Lawmakers Should Continue Holding the Line on Dominion Energy Accountability 

Richmond — A suite of energy bills that challenge the dominant role of Virginia’s regulated utility monopolies passed with bipartisan support and are now on their way to Governor Northam’s desk upon adjournment of the General Assembly on Thursday. 

“For the first time in decades, legislators overcame Dominion Energy’s strong opposition to pass legislation that first and foremost protects ratepayers. A newly emergent bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rightfully put the interests of Virginians above those of shareholders, sending a strong message that Dominion Energy will no longer be able to use the General Assembly as a rubber stamp for its profit-padding legislation,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.” New lawmakers have joined seasoned members of both chambers to build a firewall of support for consumer protection, good governance, and distributed clean energy.” 

Legislators from both parties worked vigilantly this session to shift the power from utility monopolies to third-party regulators and Virginia energy customers: 

    • Passing the first Dominion-opposed bill in recent memory. House Bill 528 (Delegate Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun) restores the State Corporation Commission’s oversight of cost recovery for early retirements of power plants for Dominion Energy. Without passage of this legislation, Dominion could force ratepayers to shoulder a disproportionate financial burden for the clean energy transition and use these expenses to deny customer refunds when they overcharge Virginians, a notable concern of both Democratic and Republican representatives.
    • Blocking the first Dominion-supported bill in the General Assembly. A top priority for the utility, Senate Bill 1096 (Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth), would have significantly raised customer bills and handcuffed public schools to Dominion Energy’s profit incentives through an exclusive electric school bus contract. 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.
    • Advancing multiple attempts to increase competitive options for energy providers to next year. Both chambers passed pilot competition bills with bipartisan patrons and support, signaling interest in overhauling Virginia’s vertically-integrated monopoly structure.
    • Advocating for a fair rate case hearing for Dominion Energy next year. Despite broad bipartisan support from the Office of the Governor, Office of the Attorney General, environmental groups, low-income advocates, faith organizations, the business community, real estate interests, data centers, and conservative grassroots coalitions, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee failed to advance the Fair Energy Bills Act (Delegates Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, and Lee Ware, R-Powhatan) by one vote after passing the House of Delegates 77 (Y) – 23 (N). 

“There is still tremendous work to be done to fight utility monopoly corruption in Virginia politics and to distribute both electric and political power more equitably across the Commonwealth,” Gilmore said. “General Assembly leadership can start by committing to grant all bills a fair hearing next session — Delegates were never given a chance this session to vote on a good governance bill that would have prohibited unlimited campaign contributions from utility monopolies. Virginia voters gave the legislature a clear and overwhelming mandate on this issue last November and the General Assembly must listen.”

“Lawmakers overcame what once seemed like an insurmountable barrier during the 2020 legislative session — considering Virginia’s energy market on the customers’ terms, not the terms of Dominion Energy. The outcome of this legislative session demonstrates that there is a growing bipartisan appetite to broadly reform Virginia’s utility monopoly structure. We look forward to working with legislators and stakeholders to ensure that legislation to power Virginia with a 21st-century energy market is as strong as possible.”

###

BREAKING: Senate Committee Votes “No” on Public Utility Money Ban
January 21, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director

cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

January 21, 2020 

BREAKING: Senate Committee Votes “No” on Public Utility Money Ban 

In rebuke to 2019 election mandate, 10 Senators voted against curbing political spending from utility monopolies 

Richmond — In a 10-5 vote today, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee failed to pass the Public Utility Campaign Contributions Ban, SB 25, introduced by Senator Chap Petersen and co-patroned by Senator John Bell and Senator Jennifer Boysko. In response, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said, 

“Every Senator that voted to allow Dominion Energy and other utility monopolies’ money into Virginia politics voted to weaken public trust in Virginia’s government. Passing this bill in the Senate would have sent a strong message that the General Assembly is finally ready to prioritize people over monopoly profit. Sadly, these Senators, who collectively have taken at least $413,166 from Dominion, let down their constituents. Every time one of Dominion’s captive customers turns on their lights, they are unwittingly subsidizing the corporation’s political influence. We have seen over the past decade how that political influence has been directly detrimental to those same customers’ interests in terms of higher bills, billions in overcharges and environmental degradation.”

“It is now up to the House of Delegates to protect the democratic process in Virginia from legalized monopoly corruption. Every flipped seat in 2019’s General Assembly elections went to a candidate with a principled stance against accepting campaign contributions from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company. We hope all Delegates listen to their constituents and vote ‘yes’ for the Public Utility Campaign Contributions Ban.”

The final Senate Privileges and Elections committee vote tally is as follows: 

Deeds (Chair ): Y

Howell: N 

Vogel: N

Reeves: N 

Ebbin: Y 

Chafin: N 

Ruff: N

Spruill: N 

Peake: N

McDougle: N 

Surovell: N

Mason: N

McClellan: Y 

Boysko: Y

Bell: Y 

The Privileges and Elections Campaign Finance Subcommittee in the House of Delegates is expected to hear the companion version of this bill, HB 111, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole (D-Fredericksburg), later this week.

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Report details utilities’ use of charitable giving to influence politics
December 10, 2019

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, the Energy and Policy Institute has examined the charitable contributions of 10 leading investor-owned electric utilities in the U.S. We found that all of these major utilities use their charitable giving to manipulate politics, policies and regulation in ways designed to increase shareholder profits, often at the expense of low-income communities whose communities are more likely to bear the brunt of climate impacts and suffer higher levels of air pollution.

Read the report: 

Strings Attached: How utilities use charitable giving to influence politics and increase investor profits

From 2013 to 2017, EPI estimates that the 10 utilities that we assessed – Ameren, American Electric Power, Arizona Public Service, Dominion Energy, DTE Energy, Duke Energy, Entergy, FirstEnergy, NextEra Energy, and Southern Company – gave approximately $1 billion to charitable organizations.

Utility Total Charitable Giving (2013-2017)
Ameren $35,276,349
American Electric Power $116,102,421
Arizona Public Service $38,919,576
Dominion Energy $105,972,472
DTE Energy $78,420,180
Duke Energy $306,482,338
Entergy $69,514,279
FirstEnergy $28,312,221
NextEra Energy $44,020,196
Southern Company $209,214,246.45
Total $1,032,234,278

That number, for just 10 companies, is 13 times greater than the $78 million that the entire utility sector – including political action committees and individual employees – contributed to federal elections in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database.

Utility sector federal
campaign contributions
Amount
2017-2018 $24,725,200
2015-2016 $31,215,236
2013-2014 $21,963,304
Total $77,903,740

Clearly, not all of the utilities’ charitable spending is directly political. Utilities’ charitable arms often collect some of their revenue from utility employees, the vast majority of whom are likely acting in good faith to support community-based organizations.

The data and case studies in this report prove, however, that much of the utilities’ charitable activity is geared explicitly to influence politics. If even if a small portion of the $1 billion that only these 10 utilities gave to charity was politically motivated – a proposition which seems likely based on the case studies documented here – then utilities’ influence-seeking via charity would be at least as large, if not much larger than, their other forms of political spending such as traditional campaign contributions.

Utilities use charities to extort support from low-income communities and communities of color

One theme across EPI’s analysis is that utilities frequently use charitable giving to gain support from organizations that represent low-income communities and communities of color.

Michigan utility DTE Energy provides multiple examples of the practice.

DTE submitted a rate increase proposal in 2018 that included a proposal to change its compensation program for rooftop solar customers. DTE’s proposal would have not only significantly reduced the rate at which a customer would be compensated for the electricity their solar panels send back to the grid, but also would have added a fee on customers who install rooftop solar.

Michigan Public Service Commissioner Sally Talberg said the thousands of comments urging the PSC to reject DTE’s proposed fee and reduced rate for solar compensation were “unprecedented” during her time at the agency.

In response, the utility mobilized non-profit organizations to create the perception of public support for the anti-rooftop solar proposals, particularly from organizations representing communities of color.

Midwest Energy News reported that a group called Michigan Energy Promise emerged in January 2019 to back DTE Energy’s position on net metering and other issues before the PSC.

On February 26, Bishop W.L. Starghill, Jr, a member of the new group and the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, authored an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine attacking the solar industry using various utility industry talking points.

The allies listed on Michigan Energy Promise’s website were mostly churches, chambers of commerce, and nonprofits that advocate for communities of color. Many of the groups had either received thousands of dollars from the DTE Energy Foundation over the past five years, list the utility as a corporate sponsor on organization websites, or include a utility employee as a member of the board.

Later in 2019, dozens of people gathered in a community room at the Wayne County Community College downtown campus for over four hours. Nearly everyone in the room was there to voice their displeasure with their electric utility company, DTE Energy, and its recently filed Integrated Resource Plan, which was weighted toward fracked gas and away from renewable energy.

Of the 50 individuals who provided public comments, only nine voiced support for DTE Energy. Almost every DTE supporter was in some way connected to the company, including five speakers who represented charities or churches that collectively had received at least $578,500 from the DTE Energy Foundation since 2013. Most of those charitable organizations represented communities of color.

Particularly in recent years, diverse voices that represent communities of color have fought back against utility manipulation or co-option of this type. In Michigan, Jeremy Orr, the state chairperson of environmental and climate justice for the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP, rejected DTE’s argument that rooftop solar power harmed low-income customers. “Clean energy isn’t just an environmental issue: It’s a civil rights issue,” Orr wrote in an op-ed. “Instead of keeping power in the hands of billion-dollar utilities, we envision a future where everyone can participate in and benefit from the clean energy economy — and the potential is huge.”

Indeed, while utilities have tried to influence some state chapters of the NAACP with donations, the national NAACP has argued aggressively against utility co-option. The NAACP released a report in 2019, “Fossil Fueled Foolery” which denounced attempts by utilities and other fossil fuel companies to “pacify or co-opt community leaders and organizations and misrepresent the interests and opinions of communities.”

“Over the years, the companies will regularly support local groups financially, have officials attend meetings and sometimes gain seniority in the membership of local groups, and even invite representatives of influential groups to serve on their boards of directors. All this relationship building results in a false sense of common cause and affinity. This is the approach most commonly used with NAACP units,” the NAACP wrote. The organization added that “energy companies that use fossil fuels are always harmful to consumers, as their business model is rooted in keeping their customers dependent on them, limiting consumer choice, preserving their monopoly, and maximizing profit at the expense of the sustainability of our environment and the health and well-being of our families and communities.”

Utilities’ efforts to co-opt or manipulate communities of color are particularly egregious given many of the companies’ track record of pushing for regressive rate structures that hurt low-income customers the worst, and of environmental injustice, including the siting of polluting power plants and waste facilities in poor communities and communities of color.

Many of the civil-society and non-profit organizations described in this report as receiving money from utilities do crucial work in fields such as affordable housing, community development, racial justice, civil rights, or healthcare. Community organizations tend to operate on small budgets and are not in a position to antagonize potential large donors. They also often have limited experience with energy issues. If a utility’s charitable arm calls and asks them to sign onto a letter or testify at a hearing about the utility’s positive role in the community, they may not have much of a choice but to say yes.

The utilities manipulating community groups, however, have no such excuses for their actions. These companies spend millions of dollars, earned from captive customers, to prosecute their political arguments, and have the resources to employ fleets of lobbyists and lawyers to represent them at public utility commissions and state legislatures.

More information, including details on the report’s methodology, is here:

Strings Attached: How utilities use charitable giving to influence politics and increase investor profits

Overpowered: In Virginia, Dominion faces challenges to its reign
December 4, 2019

By: Darren Sweeney, Richard Martin, Krizka Danielle Del Rosario, Ciaralou Palicpic, Jose Miguel Fidel Javier

This is the third of a five-part series exploring oversupply in the power sector and the factors driving a glut of natural gas-fired power plants.

When Dominion Energy Virginia decided in 2012 to convert two units of its coal-fired Bremo Bluff power station to burn natural gas, it pledged that the conversion at the Fluvanna County plant would save customers $32 million compared to the cost of building new gas-fired generation and $155 million compared to continued operation on coal.

Those benefits never materialized. Instead, in December 2018, four years after the conversion was completed, the company known legally as Virginia Electric and Power Co. placed the Bremo units in “cold reserve” along with several other generating units, idling more than 1,200 MW in total, nearly three-quarters the size of Virginia’s largest power plant, the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station. And earlier this year, Dominion Energy Inc. executives announced they would permanently shut down the idled Bremo Bluff units.

But despite a dramatic fall in power prices and its decision to mothball a significant portion of its generating fleet, Dominion continues to add more natural gas generation capacity.An examination of State Corporation Commission, or SCC, records; Dominion’s past integrated resource plans, or IRPs; campaign finance documents; and independent reports, along with interviews with utility analysts and environmental advocates and statements from Dominion officials, shows that the company has consistently over-forecast electricity demand to justify building new capacity, primarily natural gas plants with dubious economics that will ultimately be paid for by ratepayers.

The utility said it plans to add at least eight new natural gas-fired plants, totaling nearly 3,700 MW, by 2033, according to its 2018 integrated resource plan,. An update to the IRP outlines three alternatives that call for adding 2,425 MW of natural gas-powered combustion turbine capacity by 2044.

That is on top of two large gas plants that recently came online: the Brunswick County Power Station, which started up in April 2016, and the Greensville Power Station, brought online in December 2018. Together, those two plants total more than 3,000 MW of new gas-fired generation capacity and cost more than $2 billion to build.

The proposals come as electricity demand in Virginia grew less than 1% from the Great Recession of 2007-2008 through 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and is projected to remain essentially flat for at least the next decade. In an era of little to no demand growth, when it is already removing plants from service long before their planned retirement dates, Dominion continues to add thousands of megawatts of new gas-fired capacity. And since it is a regulated monopoly, the company continues to pass the costs of those plants along to its customers.

“Dominion is on a massive natural-gas building spree, having added five plants in the last 10 years,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who has represented the group in proceedings before the SCC involving Dominion for several years. “Their forecasts have consistently and inaccurately over-predicted load. And when the commissioners ask ‘What are you doing to fix it?’ the answer is ‘Nothing.'”

Dominion Energy spokeswoman Audrey Cannon said the company is “investing in natural gas because it’s a great partner for renewables.”

Natural gas “helps fill in the gaps when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing,” Cannon said in a Nov. 1 email response to questions about the company’s resource plans. “Renewables alone don’t have the capacity to meet the peak demand of our customers. That’s why a diverse energy mix — including solar and wind as well as natural gas and zero-carbon nuclear energy — is critical to serving our customers reliably and affordably.”

Times a’changing

Now, though, the era of untrammeled building by Dominion could be coming to an end.

In December 2018, the SCC rejected Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed IRP, finding that the company’s forecasts “have been consistently overstated, particularly in years since 2012, with high growth expectations despite generally flat actual results each year.”

Dominion’s plan failed to model $870 million in energy efficiency programs and a battery storage pilot as required by a landmark 2018 state law known as the Grid Transformation and Security Act, the commissioners said. The regulators ordered the company to “correct and refile” the IRP and not to rely on its internal load forecasts in future IRPs.

In mid-January, the SCC also rejected about 90% of Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed grid transformation plan, filed under the new law. The overall plan was “unsupported by the evidence,” the regulators said, and too costly for customers.

Meanwhile, a growing number of state legislators and other political officials have declared that they will no longer accept campaign contributions from Dominion, which for many years was the largest corporate contributor to political campaigns in the state of Virginia. The shift was underscored by the November general election, in which Democrats took full control of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in 26 years.

“Dominion’s stranglehold on the Virginia state legislature is slowly loosening,” Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund, said in a statement following the election. “Now it’s up to our leaders to put Virginia on the path to 100% clean energy.”

“Now, the times they are a-changing,” said former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who served several years in the General Assembly and who is now the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Donald Trump. “There’s a political price now to be paid on both sides of the aisle for just doing what Dominion wants. They don’t get to just say what they want and go get it. It’s a fight now. And it’s a fight with political costs.”

Cuccinelli, a Republican, has formed an unlikely alliance with left-leaning groups to fight Dominion’s power in the state, including Clean Virginia, founded by Charlottesville, Va., investor Michael Bills. Bills’ Clean Virginia has endorsed a slate of 61 candidates for the state legislature, most of them challengers to long-seated incumbents and all of whom have refused to accept money from Dominion.

“Our problem is not convincing people, it’s just educating them about the way the system is,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia. “Once they realize Virginia is a place where a regulated monopoly can give endless amounts of money to politicians who then have to regulate it, they understand that that’s a fundamentally broken system and want to do something to fix it.”

Attorney General Mark Herring, a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2021, has also pledged to no longer take campaign donations from state-regulated monopolies, including Dominion, based on the “lack of public trust” in government oversight that this creates. “That’s something that I think I could do to help restore the public’s trust,” Herring told the blog Blue Virginia.

The shift in pressure marks an abrupt turn of fortune for Dominion, which has long wielded considerable political power in its home state of Virginia. At the very least, it means that Dominion could face more resistance to new gas plants in the future.

SNL Image

Often, Dominion has used its influence to win regulatory approval for new power plants in Virginia, according to Cuccinelli. “I’ve been paying attention to this specifically since I got elected to the state Senate in 2002,” Cuccinelli said in an interview. “And sitting here talking to you more than 16 years later, I can’t name a time they didn’t basically get one of these requests granted. “If they had to go change the law to do it, they did it. Really without much trouble.”

Doubling down on gas

Dominion Energy’s portfolio includes 8,989 MW of operating natural gas capacity announced since 2000, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. In addition to at least 4,700 MW of new solar capacity in the next 15 years, all of the scenarios modeled in Dominion’s 2018 IRP involve the addition of eight new natural-gas-fired power plants by 2033, with a combined capacity of up to 3,664 MW.

To justify building these new plants and passing on the costs to ratepayers, Dominion has consistently produced load-growth forecasts that have proven to be overestimated — and that exceed those produced by PJM Interconnection, the grid operator whose territory includes Virginia and that has acknowledged that its own forecasts were overly optimistic for years.

In 2017, for example, PJM forecast that load growth in Dominion’s service territory would be relatively flat through 2032, reaching just over 20,000 MW. In its 2017 IRP, by contrast, Dominion said load would grow steadily, reaching nearly 25,000 MW by 2032. The difference equates to three major gas-fired plants the size of the 1,588-MW Greensville Power Station.

Justifying these aggressive forecasts, Dominion has claimed that growth in data centers in the state, which has become a major hub for online traffic, will dramatically increase electricity demand.

“Data centers are just an unbelievable growth machine for us,” former Dominion Energy Executive Vice President and CFO Mark McGettrick said on a May 2017 earnings call. At the time, Dominion said data centers made up about 18% of the company’s commercial load. In August 2017, Dominion Energy Chairman, President and CEO Thomas Farrell II said higher electricity sales to data centers and residential customers, along with increased defense spending, would support electric sales growth of at least 1% annually.

Tech companies, however, have questioned those assumptions, and they have pursued plans to purchase renewable energy for their facilities. In a September 2018 letter to the SCC, a group of data center operators, including eBay Inc. and salesforce.com inc., said the need for electricity from conventional power plants will dwindle as the data industry becomes more energy-efficient and shifts toward renewable energy. Many of the largest owners of data centers in the state, including Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp., have committed to 100% renewable energy, and access to renewable energy “is a significant factor in deciding whether to locate or expand new data centers within the Commonwealth,” the letter stated.

Nevertheless, Dominion continues to defend its forecast models, which show demand increasing into the foreseeable future.

“We find our forecasts have been much closer to the actual figures than the other models,” Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said in an interview. “In the long term, the type and amount of generation resources might get realigned to meet the load, but solar along with gas-fired power stations remains the best option for our customers for reliability and cost.”

A flaw in the scheme

As Virginia’s political winds shift, Dominion continues to be one of the most profitable U.S. utilities. According to data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence, Dominion ranks second among U.S. utilities in terms of recurring EBITDA margin, just behind NextEra Energy Inc.

Like many regulated utilities, Dominion makes money not only by selling electricity but also by building new plants. While 19 states have decoupled power generation from transmission and other utility operations, Virginia remains vertically integrated, allowing Dominion to be paid in full for new capacity, including an approved profit. For a plant that costs $1 billion to build, for example, customers could pay up to $3.5 billion over the facility’s 40-year life after financing costs and utility returns are included, according to an analysis by Tom Hadwin, a former utility executive who now acts as a pro bono consultant to the Southern Environmental Law Center and other organizations.

“This amount will be recovered from ratepayers regardless of how much the unit runs and whether it does so profitably,” said Hadwin. “This is a major flaw in Virginia’s regulatory scheme and families and businesses will pay a heavy price for it,” he added. “Dominion is proposing thousands of MW of additional generation beyond what its demand requires in order to cash in on this.”

In the case of the Greensville Power Station, Dominion was cleared to make an initial 9.6% return, eventually lowered to 9.2%, under a rate adjustment clause that added about 75 cents a month to a typical customer’s bill — despite the rate freeze that was enacted in 2015.

The Greensville project generated fierce opposition from environmental and ratepayer groups, which argued that the utility had not considered alternatives such as solar power and energy efficiency measures.

The SCC, however, not only found that the company “undertook serious and credible efforts” to investigate non-fossil-fuel options, but also granted the rate adjustment clause to boost Dominion’s earnings. Such adjustment clauses have been attached to each of the large natural gas plants constructed or developed by Dominion in recent years.

In addition, ratepayers across PJM’s territory pay for those plants to be online and available for dispatch. That revenue also flows to Dominion, which uses it to offset customers’ bills through various bill adjustments.

“The revenue from the energy sales to PJM is a credit to our customers in the fuel factor,” Dominion spokesperson Audrey Cannon said in an email. “In other words, all revenue we receive from selling energy into PJM is passed on dollar-for-dollar to our customers each year.”

The revenue the company receives from its capacity sales is “netted out against the cost” of capacity purchases, Cannon said, and the net revenue, whether positive or negative, is passed on to customers through base rates.

PJM does not make capacity payments to individual generators public, but S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates those payments based on information published by PJM, including the resource listing (i.e., available generators), peak credits (adjustments to generator capacity to reflect peak summer availability) and cleared prices. Assuming that all Dominion resources cleared the 2018 auction, S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates that its 14 gas plants, totaling 9,700 MW of summer capacity, received $381.6 million from the capacity market. That would represent about 33.2% of the total revenues those plants received by selling electricity.

Recent pushback at the SCC and in the legislature indicates that the interests of customers, along with environmental considerations, are starting to carry more weight in Virginia. After Democrats gained control of both houses of the Virginia legislature, a group known as the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition said it is “paramount” for newly elected leaders to work on “replacing the current monopoly structure that electric utilities have abused for too long.”Still winning

Still, Dominion continues to win its share of battles in Richmond.

In late June, the SCC approved Dominion’s revised long-term resource plan but raised concerns that it “may significantly understate the costs facing Dominion’s customers.”

Under the approved plan, an average residential customer will pay an additional $29.37 on their monthly bill by 2023, the regulators said. That is a 26% increase from January 2019.

The IRP calls for Dominion to build eight gas peaker units, totaling 3,644 MW of new gas generation capacity. Those plants are slated to come online between 2022 and 2033, meaning they will still be producing power well past midcentury — or they will be idled earlier, just like the plants Dominion shut off in 2018.

In any case, customers will be still be paying for them.

Dominion PR Director Spins Through Revolving Door into Northam Administration
October 8, 2019

By Derek Seidman

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced last week that Grant Neely will become his new Communications Chief. Neely has been the Director of Strategic Communications for Dominion Energy since August 2016.

Dominion is an energy utility that is one of the most powerful corporate forces in Virginia. The appointment reinforces concerns over the revolving door between Dominion and state governments and potential conflicts of interests of government officials regarding Dominion, which is pushing the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 600-mile fracked gas pipeline that would run through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Neely is not new to the revolving door between industry and government. Before going to work for Dominion in 2016, Neely was chief of staff to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. He resigned from the Jones administration to go work for Dominion as the company’s media point person.

Neely will now serve in an administration that has regulatory oversight over his immediate former employer. This comes at a time when Dominion’s power and influence has come under increasing scrutiny.

Grant Neely is not the only person to have walked through the revolving door between Dominion and state government. In early 2018, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper hired Lee Lilley as his Director of Legislative Affairs. Lilley had been a lobbyist for Dominion for years – right up until the time he joined the Cooper administration.

Before becoming a lobbyist, Lilley was a legislative director for North Carolina U.S. House Representative George Butterfield, developing skills and connections that he could later bring to his lobbying work on behalf of private corporate interests. After serving in government from January 2007 to May 2012, Lilley became a lobbyist for McGuireWoods, a powerhouse consulting firm (Richard Cullen, the brother-in-law of Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, is a partner at McGuireWoods).

From 2012 to 2017, Dominion paid $690,000 to McGuireWoods for lobbying services carried out by teams of lobbyists that included Lilley. Some of these lobbying efforts for Dominion that Lilley was part of involved meetings with the U.S. Senate and House on the issue of “Proposed Interstate Natural Gas Pipeline approval” – likely a reference to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At McGuireWoods, Lilley also lobbied for other fossil fuel and utility clients that included the America’s Natural Gas Alliance, American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Duke Energy.

The revolving door between states governments and Dominion – with persons entering the top ranks of gubernatorial administrations directly from positions where they were paid to lobby for Dominion or held positions directly within the utility – raises questions about Dominion’s influence over and access to these administrations.

Notably, Virginia and North Carolina have both seen intense debate over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, much of which would run through those two states to transport fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale formation. Dominion is the pipeline’s top (48%) owner, while Duke Energy is the second top (47%) owner.

Dominion has been a top donor in Virginia politics for years. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion has spent at least $16,694,987 in Virginia politics since 1996. Since October 2015, it has given $216,751 to Ralph Northam throughout his career. Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has also showered Virginia politicians with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dominion’s vast influence in Virginia – including tied its interests regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – is illustrated in other ways.

For example, as we reported earlier this year, a host of Virginia state legislators who have proactively supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are personally invested in Dominion – meaning they are potentially set to profit from the pipeline they are supporting from the platform of their elected position. One State Senator, Bill DeSteph, owns more than $250,000 in Dominion stock (you can view a table with all these investments here).

Others have pointed out further evidence of Dominion’s troubling influence on government officials and regulators.

For example, Kelly Roache at Energy Policy Institute recently wrote about how U.S. Attorney General William Barr and states Attorneys General have supported Dominion as the U.S. Supreme Court is “poised to decide this month whether it will review a ruling key to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s future.” Barr received $2.3 million in cash and stock awards as a Dominion board member from 2009 to 2018 and Dominion has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Itai Vardi has also reported on conflicts involved in reviews and assessments around the pipeline for DeSmog.