RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers say they’re taking steps to lower electric bills, but the outcome of those efforts isn’t entirely clear yet.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers celebrated legislation dubbed the “Affordable Energy Act,” which passed with unanimous support in the House and Senate.
The legislation restores power previously stripped from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) and allows state regulators to better protect consumers from being overcharged. Lawmakers described it as one of the most significant consumer protection bills on energy in many years.
“It is a great day to be anyone who pays for electricity in Virginia. It has been a long time coming,” Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Arlington) said at a press conference.
It comes as other, more divisive bills impacting electric utilities are still being hashed out in a debate that’s expected to continue behind closed doors after the House and Senate passed different versions of the legislation.
In a statement on Tuesday, Dominion Energy said, “While this step of the process is complete, important work remains to provide $350 million in immediate rate relief to customers and to avoid a $17 monthly bill increase due to fuel costs.”
That legislation is being sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax). In a floor debate earlier this month, Saslaw cited the SCC when he said his bill would save the average residential customers roughly $6 to $7 dollars on their monthly bill come July 1, 2023. He echoed Dominion’s message about spreading out fuel cost increases largely attributed to the war in Ukraine.
“Without this bill, rates will go up $17 a month on the average bill. If you vote against this, you’re voting flat out to increase $17 for your constituents,” Saslaw said.
“This is not a terrible bill,” responded Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “Doesn’t mean it’s a great bill.”
In addition to increasing SCC authority, critics say Saslaw’s bill tinkers with how profits are measured in a way that could redefine what’s considered an overcharge and make Dominion more money. Those provisions would sunset after five years because of an amendment.
“It’s pretty clear who drafted it. It was drafted by Dominion,” said Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan). “It will increase their return on equity and it seems to me that, with the tremendous advertising campaign that they have put forward in the last week, they would like to proceed with it.”
Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) isn’t convinced it will result in savings for consumers down the road.
“Dominion has overcharged consumers by nearly $2 billion since 2009 through the process of writing bills exactly like the one that you’re asking about. So, if the past is any prologue, we should predict that whatever bill comes out of that process is likely not to be the best deal for consumers,” Hudson said.
In a Feb. 10 letter to lawmakers, the State Corporation Commission responded to several specific questions and clarified that Saslaw’s bill, as passed in the Senate, could end up increasing average monthly electric bills in several cases.
For example, when asked about the revised ROE as it relates to Dominion’s current and planned capital projects over their anticipated service lives, the SCC said the monthly bill impact for a typical residential customer would vary by year, but the increase ranges between approximately $5.00 to $7.25 per month.
Dominion contends that the questions in the letter tee up misleading hypotheticals.
“We do not dispute the SCC’s answers. They accurately answered the questions they were asked. However, none of the hypothetical scenarios they were asked about are provisions of the Kilgore-Saslaw bill,” a Dominion spokesperson said in an email.
SCC spokesperson Andy Farmer said state regulators are unable to make a final judgment about the overall impact on customer bills at this time because it will depend on a number of factors moving forward.
“A significant number of us will not be voting for any conference report unless we can be assured that it will lead to lower costs and not higher costs,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond).
The House version of the bill, which was sponsored by House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City), stripped the ROE language from the bill, easing some concerns. But some still fear it could weaken Virginia’s clean energy goals, which were set under Democratic leadership, by ensuring the SCC has discretion to halt the retirement of fossil fuel plants if it will hurt energy reliability.
The Office of the Attorney General and Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration spoke in support of the House version in committee after the changes were made.
Del. Ware said “for the first time” the governor is signaling support for their view on energy regulation.
Youngkin’s office declined to comment on Tuesday.