by Steve Haner
One year later, a series of energy policy goals for Virginia proposed by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy remains just as valid and also remain unaccomplished. Gridlock has favored the flawed status quo.
Compared to a year ago, more Virginians have awakened to the reality that they will soon be forced into electric vehicles they may not want. They may be prevented from using reliable and efficient natural gas in a furnace or stove. Their monthly electric bill is growing with charges for unreliable solar and wind projects that do not work more hours than they do.
And despite all that, the weather will remain as it is, and the millennia-long relative sea level rise will stay its inexorable course. Our self-imposed energy poverty won’t stop any of that. We can rush toward that stark future or change course, the sooner the better. The checklist remains the same.
The opening paragraph of the document a year ago noted that Dominion Energy Virginia had just admitted its 176-turbine offshore wind project was going up in cost to almost $10 billion. Debate over the project and possible forms of consumer protection continues, but the dollar figures under discussion have risen again. Consumers may now be on the hook now for a share of $11.3 billion or more, amortized over decades. A total project cost of almost $14 billion is now hinted at.
The underlying laws that basically mandate the project’s approval, constraining the State Corporation Commission’s traditional independent oversight role, remain fully in force. Two bills to restore SCC discretion that passed in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates during the 2022 session failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
In his recently released state energy plan, Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) expressed strong support for restoring the SCC’s ability to decide what are reasonable and prudent utility investments, ending the General Assembly’s usurpation of that job. The legislation to accomplish that is not yet revealed. Again, if all Democrats vote against it in lock step, it dies.
There is no better indication of the continuing gridlock than the General Assembly’s failure to elect a third member to the three-member SCC, a vacancy which has dragged on for a year.
Governor Youngkin has also begun a process to eliminate the carbon tax imposed by Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Eliminating taxes or penalties intended to discourage particular forms of energy in favor of others was an element of the Institute’s proposal. But the tax itself remains in place and will continue into 2023, costing consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, as Democrats fight at every step to maintain the RGGI tax.
The 2021 recommendation to remove penalties in law on specific energy sources would also apply to the coming ban on internal combustion engines in vehicles, which rely on gasoline or diesel. A year later Virginia remains in step with California’s shrinking caps on and eventual elimination of the sale of such vehicles. Legislation on that also passed the House and failed in the Senate, but has been reintroduced already for 2023.
Continuing with the list of prior recommendations:
Has anything changed to limit the ability of the regulated utilities to influence their own fates and the costs imposed on consumers by making large campaign contributions? No.
Has the SCC process been opened up by making it more difficult for applicants and other parties to cases to declare information is proprietary or confidential and thus withheld from public examination? No. In a few cases the Office of the Attorney General has successfully pushed for additional transparency. A real solution will require a change in SCC rules, or legislation.
No effort was made to remove the consumer advocacy function from under the Office of the Attorney General and transfer it to a separate office, as is the case in several other states. This idea has nothing to do with the priorities or skills of the staff, and everything to do with the appearances created by the Attorney General being an elected officer soliciting and accepting those very same campaign contributions discussed above.
Tightly limit or eliminate the campaign contributions, and the need to restructure the office diminishes.
Under Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares, the Office of Consumer Counsel did devise and push an aggressive consumer protection proposal on Dominion’s offshore wind project. In its initial decision on the case the SCC accepted it. But Dominion asked for reconsideration, and Miyares then abandoned his previous proposal in light of something else Dominion preferred.
Last year it was clear that Virginia local governments, especially those few with their own utility services, had no duty to serve their communities. Richmond City Council had expressed (and has never retreated from) a desire to eliminate its natural gas utility, which reaches into three surrounding counties. Other Virginia localities under pressure from local activists are willing to implement energy micro-policies to discourage or eliminate specific fuel sources, often with zoning restrictions.
Following the familiar pattern, the Republican members of the House had the votes to pass a bill to establish a right to natural gas within state law, which would constrain those local efforts. They did so. It also failed in the Senate.
Every one of these efforts should be attempted and debated again at the 2023 General Assembly. The result could again be partisan gridlock, but if the two parties get further locked into their opposite positions, at least voters can see a clear choice for the 2023 elections in both chambers.
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