I expect Republicans to lie to me, but not Democrats. That’s why I was taken aback by the recent mailer from my Senator, Dick Saslaw, declaring him “Our Environmental Leader in the State Senate.”
As I and others at BV have long documented, Senator Saslaw is rarely able to hide his contempt for anyone who dare raise an environmental issue to his face – as shown in videos of his town halls like this one. He often repeats fossil fuel industry talking points like “this talk about the Green New Deal – that’s fine if you don’t mind us being without electricity 16 hours a day” as he absurdly claimed at a recent debate with his challenger, Yasmine Taeb.
On environmental issues, the League of Conservation Voters gives Saslaw the lowest lifetime score of any Senate Democrat, while Sierra Club graded him a “D” in 2018. He is infamous for his relationship with Dominion Power, having received over $350,000 from them over the years as the company’s top individual recipient – in return, consistently championing Dominion’s anti-clean energy bills in the Senate.
But being challenged by a compelling young progressive in a Democratic primary can make an old-school corporate crony pol suddenly want to portray himself as something he is not. So in this mailer, he claims credit for “Clean Energy and Grid Modernization”; “New Solar Panels on more than 200 government buildings and schools here in Fairfax County”; “More Solar and Wind energy sources to power our homes in clean and renewable ways” and a “Modern Electric Grid” among other things.
We can dismiss the claim about Fairfax County immediately, as the greening of our buildings and schools is the responsibility of the County Board of Supervisors and county government staff, and Saslaw has no business claiming credit for their work.
The other clean energy claims relate to his co-sponsorship of last year’s electric utility regulation bill, SB 966/SB 967, the only reference provided in the mailer. So, debunking Saslaw’s claims to be a great clean energy champion requires unpacking the sordid details and history of this bill. The short version is that, contrary to his claims, there are no clean energy mandates in this law – and the clean energy provisions it contains are aimed at enriching Dominion, not helping consumers. A more detailed analysis follows.
The Great Dominion Deregulation Disaster
Over the past 23 years, Dominion has shelled out a staggering $16 million in donations to Virginia politicians, demanding loyalty in return. This has allowed the utility to keep the Commonwealth far behind by most clean energy measures.
As the longtime Democratic Leader of the State Senate, as well as a key member of major Committees like Commerce and Labor, Saslaw represents an important capture for Dominion. As Dominion has written more and more bills to deregulate itself, Saslaw has been one of the most willing to introduce and fight for such legislation.
The 2018 law that he claims makes him an environmental champion was designed to fix the General Assembly’s last deregulatory disaster, the so-called “rate freeze” bill of 2015 – which Saslaw also promoted.
The 2015 bill removed the power of the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review and adjust Dominion’s electricity rates for 5 years. The excuse for this gift to Dominion was that Obama’s Clean Power Plan was supposedly going to be too costly for the utility to handle – as Saslaw put it in the monopoly’s defense, Dominion will be forced to “absorb $82 million in costs [from the] potential EPA regulations.”
In fact, such Clean Power Plan compliance cost estimates were way overblown – and Dominion is estimated to have pocketed over $400 million just in 2017 thanks to this bill. These realities, and that of Trump now working to gut Obama’s Clean Power Plan, led Dominion and its allies to find a way to put glossier lipstick on this pig. So Dominion wrote the 2018 fix and handed it to Saslaw to introduce.
Except that this new bill was seen as a new disaster – by nearly everyone, including environmentalists, conservative Republicans, Governor Northam, Attorney General Herring and numerous Senators and Delegates. As Ivy Main said of the original bill in Power to the People, it “throws a small fraction of past overearnings back to customers, ignores 2017 overearnings altogether, and allows utilities to game the system so rates can only go up hereafter.”
The bill revised the SCC’s former right to review rates every two years, now limiting the agency to reviews every three years. It allowed the utility to keep overearnings as long as they plow them into new energy projects – but as the SCC confirmed when asked by 11 Senators to comment, Saslaw’s bill allowed a “double dip” entitling the utility to charge customers for the same projects twice.
Saslaw’s fumbling of this ball forced others to pick it up. First, Governor Northam convened a group of stakeholders to negotiate an improvement – pointedly excluding legislators, perhaps a sign of how badly they’d muffed it up. The revised bill, with a few more bones tossed to consumers and environmental groups, passed the Senate. And then came a remarkable moment in the House of Delegates, as many Democrats – including the newly elected progressive ones – joined with a few Republicans to slap the bill down with an amendment banning the double dip – one of Dominion’s biggest defeats ever.
So Saslaw is claiming credit here for a bill Dominion wrote, which he introduced, that turned out to be such an unmitigated disaster that dozens of people from all sides of the political spectrum had to work to fix it – with the final version still problematic, i.e., SCC reviews still limited to every three years and refunds still not covering the full amount of Dominion’s overcharges.
Saslaw’s Clean Energy Con
Which brings us to the clean energy provisions added to the bill as sweeteners, upon which Saslaw stakes his environmental reputation. To put the discussion in context, whereas 29 states have mandatory renewable portfolio standards requiring that utilities get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables, and 20 states have mandatory energy efficiency resource standards requiring utilities to achieve energy use reductions, Virginia has neither. Dominion and the politicians within its grip have never allowed them.
Instead, this bill requires the SCC to consider the development of up to 5,000 MW of renewable energy generation to be “in the public interest.” This means, essentially, that of all the boxes that the SCC is required to check in order to approve an energy project, the legislature has pre-checked one of them. That’s something, but it’s much less than Saslaw claims, for a few reasons.
First, this legislative language puts the ball in Dominion’s court to propose new projects – the kind of control our monopoly likes to have – while diminishing the SCC’s power to judge such projects, rather than just giving regulators and the regulated clear and unequivocal renewable energy goals to meet.
Second, the SCC has made clear that it retains the right to ensure that any projects proposed must check other required boxes – as last year, when it rejected a wind project from Virginia’s other electric utility, Appalachian Power, on the grounds that the investment was not necessary to meet its customers’ power needs. As a lawyer for that utility put it, “I don’t read the law as being a slam-dunk for anything.”
The law and Dominion policies have also underlined that the focus of its renewable energy development will be to support big corporate entities – NOT Virginia consumers. The law stipulates that a whopping 75% of the renewables developed are to be owned by the utilities – leaving a measly 25% for the rest of us.
Importantly, when you read that there is a lot of solar development going on in Virginia right now, you should know that it is primarily the result of the major tech companies demanding it for their data centers. Fun fact – did you know that “more than 70% of the world’s Internet traffic is thought to flow through Northern Virginia” – i.e., our data centers? Well, the big tech companies demanding renewable energy for these power-hungry facilities to meet corporate clean energy goals – Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. – are the ones forcing Dominion to respond.
Dominion, by meeting the demands of these big corporate clients, gets to claim credit for the outcome – right along with Dick Saslaw. Meanwhile, consumers like me and you are no closer to getting solar panels on our homes or small businesses.
And while 5,000 MW of renewables is a clear step forward, it remains a modest goal compared to many other states’ mandated goals. Our smaller Southern Republican neighbor, North Carolina, already has installed more solar energy than that. To build on the analysis Ivy Main did of the first draft of the bill, this equals less than 5% of Virginia’s total electricity supply – while other states have set goals for renewables to account for much higher percentages of their power, up to 100%.
Finally, on energy efficiency – for which Dominion has been ranked second to last in the whole country – the legislation called for the utility to devote $870 million over the next decade to such programs. Sad to say, Dominion tried to reduce that commitment too by counting revenues lost to efficiency as “spending” – until Governor Northam and others called the monopoly out on that cheap trick. Another sign of the shakiness of the law on which Saslaw hangs his big green hat.
The best leaders don’t try to present themselves as all things to all people. They stand on their principles and explain their stances so that even those with whom they disagree can appreciate and respect where they’re coming from.
But that’s not the case here. Sen. Saslaw is grossly misrepresenting his record on the environment in order to mislead his own Democratic base. Why is this okay with so many of his fellow Democratic elected officials, who continue to stand by and support him?
I don’t know – but I do know that I will continue to support his opponent, Yasmine Taeb who takes no money from Dominion, supports a Green New Deal and Solar Freedom Act for Virginia, and is fully transparent about her positions, to replace him as the Democratic nominee for SD-35 on June 11th. And I hope you do too.