An elec­tric rate freeze is good for Vir­ginia

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MARK WEBB The writer is se­nior vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate af­fairs for Do­min­ion En­ergy.

It’s coun­ter­in­tu­itive. If we could keep the cost of rent, gro­ceries and other house­hold monthly ex­penses the same for five years, most of us would wel­come the sta­bil­ity. So why are two North­ern Vir­ginia po­lit­i­cal fig­ures — former at­tor­ney gen­eral Ken Cuc­cinelli (R) and Sen. J. Chap­man “Chap” Petersen (D-Fair­fax) — chal­leng­ing a law that freezes Do­min­ion Vir­ginia Power’s base rates?

The Vir­ginia Gen­eral As­sem­bly passed a law in 2015 to pro­tect cus­tomers from a po­ten­tial price spike tied to en­vi­ron­men­tal costs. Since then, the typ­i­cal Do­min­ion res­i­den­tial cus­tomer has paid $1,100 less per year for elec­tric­ity than those else­where in the Mid-Atlantic. Rates were frozen at a level only 4 per­cent higher than they were more than five years ago.

Do­min­ion’s elec­tric ser­vice and re­li­a­bil­ity are at an all-time high. Ex­penses as­so­ci­ated with ma­jor storm re­pairs and significant en­vi­ron­men­tal costs were shifted from cus­tomers to Do­min­ion share­hold­ers.

While some Vir­ginia politi­cians claim that Do­min­ion cus­tomers are pay­ing too much, a quick com­par­i­son tells a dif­fer­ent story. North­ern Vir­ginia’s neigh­bors in Mary­land and the Dis­trict of Columbia have sig­nif­i­cantly higher rates. Res­i­den­tial cus­tomers in Mary­land pay 25 per­cent more than Do­min­ion Vir­ginia Power’s cus­tomers. In­dus­trial rates in Mary­land are 49 per­cent higher. In the Dis­trict, res­i­den­tial rates are 11 per­cent higher, and in­dus­trial rates are a whop­ping 68 per­cent higher.

No won­der large elec­tric users such as data cen­ters over­whelm­ingly lo­cate in Vir­ginia in­stead of the Dis­trict or Mary­land. In fact, the U.S. En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion found that Vir­ginia’s com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial rates are among the low­est na­tion­wide.

Still, Petersen and Cuc­cinelli main­tain that the freeze should be scrapped. They con­tend that the ra­tio­nale for the freeze, pro­tect­ing cus­tomers from the cost of com­pli­ance with the fed­eral Clean Power Plan, is gone. They ar­gue that the plan it­self is now dead, given the re­cent changes in Washington.

Nonethe­less, the Supreme Court has already ruled that green­house gases are reg­u­lated pol­lu­tants un­der the Clean Air Act. Sim­i­larly, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency is­sued an en­dan­ger­ment find­ing re­lated to green­house-gas emis­sions. The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tor in­di­cated in his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings he had no plans to re­visit the is­sue. The un­cer­tainty of the Clean Power Plan, if any­thing, has only in­creased since 2015.

The 2015 rate-freeze leg­is­la­tion did more than pro­mote stable elec­tric­ity prices and re­li­able ser­vice. It also re­quired an in­crease in en­ergy as­sis­tance for low-in­come cus­tomers — se­niors, mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and oth­ers — funded by Do­min­ion share­hold­ers. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) made clear he wanted the pro­gram to be the best in the coun­try, and it is. Do­min­ion de­liv­ered $57 mil­lion to help peo­ple who need it. The pro­gram pays to weath­er­ize homes to save money and en­ergy over the long run, and pro­vides emer­gency as­sis­tance to pay over­due en­ergy bills.

An ad­di­tional $85 mil­lion went to re­duc­ing the bills of all cus­tomers by re­quir­ing the com­pany to write off higher fuel ex­penses from the 2014 “po­lar vor­tex.”

And the law helped to build nearly $1 bil­lion of new so­lar en­ergy projects now con­tribut­ing to Vir­ginia’s power grid. That’s enough to power 100,000 homes. The ma­jor­ity of this so­lar ca­pac­ity is be­ing built at lit­tle or no cost to most Do­min­ion cus­tomers, be­cause spe­cific large cus­tomers are foot­ing the bill.

Vir­gini­ans are ben­e­fit­ting from the 2015 law. Base rates are stable and won’t change for five years. We have cleaner en­ergy and cleaner air with the de­vel­op­ment of more so­lar and re­new­able en­ergy. In­vest­ments and pro­grams are help­ing vul­ner­a­ble cus­tomers bet­ter man­age their en­ergy costs. It’s a win all around.

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