Bill ending utility rate freeze, burying controversial power line nears approval politics insidenova.com gas city indiana weather

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Lawmakers are inching ever closer to restoring state oversight of electric utility rates, with both chambers of the General Assembly advancing comprehensive bills on Feb. 26 that would also require that Dominion Energy bury a controversial power line planned for western Prince William County.

Though the issue has proven to be among the most contentious matters in the legislature’s two-month-long session, lawmakers are now just a few steps away from undoing a freeze on electric rates passed back in 2015. The House of Delegates passed a Senate-drafted version of the bill 65-30, while a Senate committee advanced the House’s draft of the legislation to the floor for a vote. As it stands now, the two versions are identical, so if the Senate passes the bill once more, it will likely head to Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for his signature.

The broad aim of both pieces of legislation is the same — the bills restore the authority of regulators with the State Corporation Commission to adjust electric rates set by utility companies like Dominion, and evaluate whether those rates are artificially high, given the utilities’ status as regulated monopolies.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, has also worked successfully to include language in both versions of the bill to force Dominion to bury a 230-kilovolt power line the company hopes to build through parts of Gainesville and Haymarket. People living along the project’s proposed path have long pressed the company to abandon the transmission line, fearing its adverse impact on the environment and property values, and Hugo offered up this new provision to allay some of those concerns.

Yet, once more, the legislation didn’t attract much support from the county’s delegates. Hugo and Dels. Luke Torian, D-52nd District, and John Bell, D-87th District, were the lone Prince William-area representatives in the House to support the bill, but the county’s other five Democratic delegates opposed it once more.

Though the legislation would require Dominion to build the project underground (likely on a route alongside Interstate 66) Roem feared some language would let the utility install lines along overhead towers in the area in the future, an outcome long derided by people battling the project. But Hugo struck that provision, noting it’s now “out of both bills.”

“This bill really should’ve been 10 or 12 different bills…so there are a lot of things in there that are good,” said Del. Lee Carter, D-50th District. “But the reason I believe those good things are in here is because there are other things that are unpalatable and we wouldn’t have voted for them on their own.”

Regulators would get the chance to examine rates once every three years, instead of the biennial reviews they did before the 2015 law took effect. The legislation would also direct Dominion to send $200 million in refunds back to customers to compensate for the rates the company’s charged for the last few years, in addition to hundreds of millions more in savings Dominion is promising to pass along to consumers following the federal tax cut. But regulators would be limited in how they could order similar refunds moving forward; utilities would be able to invest money in renewable energy or electrical grid improvement in lieu of handing out some refunds.

“This bill will cause the excess built into the current base rates to continue years into future, resulting in hundreds of millions and billions of dollars in excessive rates,” Ed Petrini, a lawyer representing large industrial utility customers across Virginia, told the Senate committee examining the bill.

But the bill’s lead backer in the House, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-1st District, argued vigorously in a floor speech that the bill would sends hundreds of millions to consumers, and prompt massive new investments in renewable energy in the state.

He added that both versions of the legislation now contains a provision backed by House Democrats to ban a “double dip” — some lawmakers feared utilities could make improvements to the grid or invest in renewables to compensate for overly high rates, then charge consumers for those moves — and hailed it as a compromise to placate all sides of the debate.