Dominion May Lose Influence Over Its Virginia Utility Regulators

 By Will Driscoll

  • Dominion’s influence over Virginia utility regulators and the Virginia legislature has protected growth and profits at its Dominion Virginia Power operating segment.
  • A candidate for Virginia governor and 57 candidates for the Virginia legislature have pledged not to accept campaign contributions from Dominion.
  • Depending on the election outcome, Dominion’s political influence could wane.

Dominion’s influence over Virginia utility regulators and the Virginia legislature has protected the growth and profits of its operating segment Dominion Virginia Power. The state legislature has passed legislation favorable to the utility. Meanwhile, the utility’s regulator, the State Corporation Commission, whose members are appointed by the legislature, has permitted the utility to favor new utility-owned fossil generating units over solar power, which customers could own as easily as the utility. (Dominion Virginia Power, one of Dominion’s three operating segments, produced about 18 percent of the company’s earnings in 2016, per the company’s annual report.)

Dominion’s campaign contributions to state legislators have cemented this cozy dynamic, as politicians of both parties have routinely accepted campaign contributions from Dominion and have passed legislation and appointed regulators favorable to the utility.

This dynamic could soon change.

A strong candidate in the Virginia governor’s race, Tom Perriello, pledged in February not to accept contributions from Dominion, and recently, 57 candidates for the state legislature joined in that pledge. Perriello then tweeted “Dominion has too much influence. In Richmond, the quality of the idea should win out over the size of the campaign check. Glad to see this.” (These politicians’ pledges also apply to Appalachian Power, Virginia’s other electric utility, which is a subsidiary of American Electric Power.)

These pledges to refuse Dominion campaign contributions tap into a long-simmering resentment among many Virginians of the monopoly utility’s costly and environmentally damaging construction plans and its coal ash ponds that pollute drinking water supplies.

The construction plans include the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines to transport fracked gas and a proposed $19 billion North Anna 3 nuclear reactor, which would be the most expensive nuclear reactor ever built. Perriello has opposed the pipelines, calling instead for “next generation solutions” that will create more jobs for Virginians.

Most recently, Tom Perriello wrote that as governor, he would take several actions to protect the environment. Two of these pledges, if met, could eat into Dominion’s profits by promoting renewable energy, which, in the case of solar, could be installed by customers. Perriello said he would:

Call for reforming state laws that have deliberately held back development of solar and wind energy and push for reforms that embrace net metering, third-party power purchase agreements, and true community solar.

Explore executive actions to cap carbon emissions, including supporting a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard in Virginia.

One Perriello pledge could reduce Dominion’s profits by requiring the utility to protect drinking water; he said he would:

Push to continue the moratorium on the dumping of coal ash into our lakes and rivers and require that polluters pay for the removal or recycling of this ash.

Perriello’s pipeline pledge could prevent an increase in Dominion’s capital stock, on which it hopes to earn a return on investment. He said he would:

Use all available powers to prevent the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipeline projects from proceeding. These pipelines pose immediate harm as well as serious risks to communities across Virginia. The construction process will require seizing private property through eminent domain for corporate gain, and the pipeline will leave 21 counties vulnerable to devastating leaks.

In contrast, Perriello’s final environmental pledge could earn Dominion money, especially given the tremendous cost declines for mega-sized wind turbines. He said he would:

Press Dominion to make productive use of its offshore wind lease.

All of this is significant only because Perriello has a decent chance to become Virginia’s governor. (The chances for the 57 state legislative candidates who shared his pledge are not known.) The polling website reports that:

Recent polling in the race shows Democrats in the lead overall; a Quinnipiac poll of the race [April 11] showed both Perriello and Northam leading Gillespie by double-digit margins in head-to-head matchups. While Gillespie is the presumed Republican candidate, things are still tight in the Democratic primary, though the Quinnipiac poll showed Perriello leading Northam 25 percent to 20 percent.