by A Siegel
Courtesy of COVID-19, as well as to Democratic Party/grassroots attention to social distancing for Public Health, “the 4th Annual Women’s Summit has gone virtual, viral, vital” with events and interactions from 20-30 June. Monday evening, June 22, featured a panel conversation on climate and clean energy with:
- Senator Jennifer McClellan
- Delegate Rip Sullivan
- Ivy Main (Renewable Energy Chair, Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club)
- Dana Wiggins (Director of Outreach and Consumer Advocacy, Virginia Poverty Law Center)
- Cliona Robb (Director, Thompson McMullan, P.C.)
- moderator Sharon Shutler (Co-Chair of Climate and Clean Energy Working Group, Virginia Grassroots Coalition)
Some live blogging …
Quesion: What was the key achievement of the session?
Senator McClellan. With taking the legislature and action on clean energy, Virginia went from back of the pack to one of the top four or five states in the nation on clean energy and efficiency, in one session. When the VCEA passed, I wanted to jump out of my chair and say ‘the eagle has landed’
Delegate Sullivan: Want to piggyback on what Jennifer said. I’ve been putting this sort of legislation since I got into the House in 2014. It has been a tough, hard slog. My first time in front of the House Energy Subcommittee, chaired by Del. Terry Kilgore. I knew that my bill wouldn’t have much of a hearing when he opened asking me: Del Sullivan, why should Dominion care if the Kilgore children leave their lights on. … When I was chair, I raised this with Del. Kilgore who came in front of the sub committee and he said “I was wrong.”
Ivy Main’s comments can be summarized as: After years with minimal action, a lot of things got done in the 2020 session.
Question 2: Even with a Democratic Party majority in House and Senate, not all clean energy/climate bills passed and it wasn’t smooth sailing.
McClellan: First, you have to realize that energy regulation is very complicated and there aren’t that many legislators that really understand it. For years, basically it was Dominion and Appalachia served as educators about these complicated issues. This started to change with the rate freeze and the specter of increased bills. In 2018, Dominion really overreached … and then you had a new wave of legislators elected in 2017 and 2019 who took the time to understand regulation and issues. It wasn’t just energy/climate where there was a backlog of 20 years of inaction but it was across every single progressive agenda item. We really were drinking from a fire hose with some attention to immediate making it harder to focus on longer term things. There were a lot of big bills that were backlogged for 20 years. The VCEA came close to being killed just due to its size and complexity. Those things we failed to achieve this year we can come back to in future years.
Ivy Main: The complexity favors the industry. But, the entire structure favors industry, lobbyists, and insiders. The short session and small staffs facilitates insider influence. And, we talk about big donors buying votes. Not sure they votes but donors do get access. A paper firm got themselves a seat at the table and built into the VCEA a ‘biomass subsidy’ that will be worth perhaps $10M a year even while their electricity is anything but clean. Ordinary citizens can’t buy themselves a seat at the table like that.
Q: Regulation / Deregulation
Cliona Robb: Virginia deregulated but, after seeing impacts elsewhere, reregulated back in 2003 … but the reentry into regulation was extremely industry friendly and what Dominion has is envied by every other utility in the nation. … how the VCEA will be regulated will be critical.
McClellan: The State Corporation Commission (SCC) have been very small “c” conservative with great reluctance
Q: Dominion Profits & Virginia utility bills
Dana Wiggins: To be very clear, the only way regulated investor-owned utilities in Virginia make money is by building and maintaining things — not by selling the electricity. This is why we see so many natural gas plants and otherwise. They borrow money from the market, get us to pay all the interest and a guaranteed profit. Dominion will say our base rates are low but our total bills are very high in no small part of the riders that are added to the bills. From 2007 on, every cost that Dominion occurred was paid by ratepayers but not their shareholders. Just a few days ago, Dominion sent three-quarters of a billion dollars to their investors while so many people around the country are suffering.
Del. Sullivan: Want to give credit to Dana and others’ work during the session to PIT Program will cap electricity program as a percentage of income. We made progress but there is a lot to do in the future. That is why God created a next session.
Q: Dominion stated intent to build more gas peaker plants. What tools can be used to prevent backsliding
Ivy Main: That plan was truly shocking. These plans, issued every three years, look 15 years ahead. With this, Dominion basically said “screw the VCEA”. The plan shows Dominion doing the absolute minimum legally required. The good news is that Dominion doesn’t get the last word here. The Administration gets to write a plan and we expect the Northam Administration to reject additional fossil gas plants. The legislature can take energy efficiency away from Dominion. Other states have separate efficiency utilities that don’t have the inherent conflict of interest that Dominion has. If Dominion continues to be recalcitrant in rejecting energy efficiency, the legislature should consider doing this. It could get traction depending on what we see from the SCC and Dominion in the rest of this year.
Question: What tools could SCC use to prevent backsliding?
Robb: As someone who often goes up against Dominion in the legislature and the SCC, have to say that I prefer the SCC. The SCC is a more level playing field, there is expert testimony on both sides, staff and commissioners have a more sophisticated understanding, Dominion can’t get away with things before the SCC that can in other environments.
Wiggins: It is much harder for the average citizen to participate in the SCC. Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) projections of demand have been wildly off and they have been using these too high projections as the basis for gaining SCC approval for building the fossil fuel plants that ratepayers have to pay all costs and give Dominion a guaranteed profit.
Sullivan: I wasn’t shocked at the IRP and Dominion’s failure to make it align with the VCEA. Dominion is used to getting what they want in the General Assembly. But, I made a joke about God making the next session. The legislators are watching and taking notes, planning on what need to do for the next twenty years. We will be keeping an eye on Dominion and making sure that they are following legislative guidance and intent.
Question/Request for feedback: How could the Coalition do better engaging to influence on climate/clean energy?
McClellan: For your first year, the Coalition did an impressive job. Important, especially on the Senate side, to realize that once the session starts, ‘we’re drinking from a fire house’. If the first time you’re engaging us is on Lobby Day, you might not get us. You should be engaging and reach out now — educate us now so that during the session you are reminding us of what we already talked about. And, be prepared to talk to staff (especially during session). Get to know the member you are trying to talk to as we are 140 people who are all different. Who likes to talk in person, by email, by phone, …
What is outlook for 2021 session on climate/clean energy?
McClellan: There is some clean-up to do. We intended to use the 30 days after closing the session for doing some of this but the . This session focused mainly on power but that is only part of climate challenge. We will start looking at transportation and manufacturing.
Sullivan: We will be looking back at VCEA but there are many things that aren’t covered by VCEA. For example, I think we should be focused on the energy efficiency of our commercial infrastructure. I had a bill for benchmarking that went nowhere a few years ago. I am
What are desired corrections of VCEA?
Main: Paper company biomass is something that we’d like to change. The VCEA distributed generation is too small and the carveout should be bigger. The VCEA applies to only Dominion and AppCo and doesn’t cover the cooperatives.
Q. What bill/action would you like to see?
Robb: Clean Energy Choice Act so that people can buy their electrons from any provider?
Wiggins: Fixing the dichotomy of overcharging ratepayers with huge profits for regulated utilities.
Question: How to change the conversation with more intensity to need to deal with climate?
Sullivan: This is incredibly complex space where the problem can be on a bumper sticker but the solutions are complex with lots of details. We are now having activists and groups coming to us with real solutions that are ‘weedy’, getting into the details.
McClellan: I do believe that people get it. We hear it on the campaign trail. We hear it every day. Especially from Gen Z. This is a very long-term fix. It is very hard to go from 60% of Dominion electricity from natural gas to zero overnight. Like going to the moon, you have to keep your eye on the goal and big picture since you have to make assumptions about technology. For VCEA, we had to set back and ask: is this better than the past and does it set us on a better path forward? And, if I can answer yes on these questions, I can look my constituents in the eyes to explain why I voted for something. We need to make progress, make progress, and keep pushing.
Question: What should we see?
Main: If I were the SCC, I would tell Dominion when it comes to its IRP: Go back to the drawing board and create a plan that is align with the legislation.