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New Bills Challenge Scope of Dominion’s Power

Power lines at sunset
Dominion Energy is facing a growing backlash to its influence in the General Assembly. (Photo: Brad790/Creative Commons)  

For years, Dominion Energy has been one of the most powerful business interests in Virginia’s legislature.

But a handful of bills seek to challenge the energy monopoly’s reign in a newly-Democratic General Assembly whose newest members have distanced themselves from the company.

One top target for environmentalists and consumer protection groups is increased regulatory oversight of the company, which they say has been greatly weakened over the last two decades.

The Fair Energy Bills Act, which is sponsored by a veteran Republican lawmaker and a young Democrat, would allow the State Corporation Commission (SCC) more oversight over the rates the company charges consumers.

The bill would allow the SCC to examine Dominion’s earnings, set its allowed profit levels and force the company to lower rates and issue refunds if it overcharges customers. A number of bills passed in previous legislative sessions have curtailed the SCC’s ability to take those actions.

The backers of the bill, Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) and Del. Lee Ware (R-Powatan), were optimistic about the legislation’s odds at a press conference last month, citing their bipartisan partnership and support from a coalition of environmental and consumer protection groups. They say their bill would restore a regulatory process that existed for decades but that has recently been trimmed.

“This isn't anything more than trying to restore the authority to the SCC to make sure that they're doing their job that they're supposed to be doing,” Jones said.

Dominion overcharged consumers in Virginia by $277.3 million last year; under recent legislation, the utility is able to keep funds for capital projects rather than refunding them to customers. The SCC also estimates that the typical residential customer saw their power bill rise $23.17 a month from 2007 to 2019.

Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said the current system was already working well, arguing that the company is balancing demands for reliable, affordable energy with investments in cleaner technology mandated by 2018 legislation. 

“The SCC certainly has done its job in making sure that the money that we are spending here for our customers benefit is in fact going to what it should be doing,” Daudani said.

The farther-reaching Green New Deal Act would place a moratorium on fossil fuel development in Virginia and mandate a 100% clean energy grid by 2036.

If passed, the bill sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) would effectively require Dominion to phase out its nuclear power plants and would halt pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure by 2021.

"The Green New Deal Act puts working families and vulnerable communities - not special interests - front and center,” Rasoul said in a statement.

Daudani said nuclear facilities and natural gas remained crucial elements of Dominion’s portfolio.

A different group of Democrats are backing the Clean Economy Act, which would phase out carbon emissions by 2050. Backers say that target is more realistic than the 2036 timeline in the Green New Deal. Other environmentalists say it’s an inadequate response to the fast pace of climate change; unlike the Rasoul's legislation, the proposal, which has not been released yet, could include natural gas projects and nuclear power.  

Daudani said Dominion would review the legislation once it was filed. 

Another bill from Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) would bar candidates from accepting donations from public service corporations like Dominion. A similar bill he introduced last year died in a party-line committee vote.

Petersen said Dominion differed from other powerful corporate interests because of its singular status as a state-chartered monopoly. 

“I’m not aware of any other state in the Union where a government monopoly, like Dominion or somebody of that ilk, goes around giving campaign donations out,” Petersen said. “And so my goal was to stop it.”

Daudani argued that any campaign finance changes should not single out Dominion. And he argued that Dominion's policy and energy goals were greatly aligned with those of environmental and consumer groups.

"Really, the disagreement comes down to how you get there," Daudani said.