Enviros Help Kill Dominion EV School Bus Bill

School bus? Storage battery? No, utility profit center.

by Steve Haner

When the Senate bill that allowed Dominion Energy Virginia to buy a fleet of electric school buses with ratepayer dollars was up for discussion last week, three environmentalist lobbyists spoke against it. They focused on the excessive cost and questioned whether it was a reasonable way to develop useful battery storage.

The counterattack was immediate and fierce and came from a Hampton Roads Democratic delegate.  “I can’t believe environmentalists are testifying that electric school buses are bad for the environment!” he shouted into his computer’s microphone. He ignored what they actually said and attacked on a false front, seeking to force them back into their accustomed swim lane. 

To their credit, their opposition continued, with a bit of a boost from Bacon’s Rebellion. The bill was defeated on the floor of the House today, a noteworthy instance where the environmentalists persuaded a healthy number of Democrats to reject something based on cost.

“It has become very clear to us who are trying to decarbonize our power and transportation sectors that we cannot do that successfully if we are not mindful of the costs it entails,” Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center told Virginia Mercury recently. “And when we have a utility structure that does not allow the commission to make sure costs are as low as possible, then we have to push for it here at the General Assembly.”

As The Virginia Mercury reported, part of what happened to Dominion’s EV school bus bill was payback for the Senate’s defeat of five bills seeking to restore State Corporation Commission authority on the eve of a major Dominion rate case. The Senate bill patron, Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, had helped kill the House bills. The legislative sins those bills sought to address were on full display in her electric school bus bill.

Even so, last ditch efforts to save it were pushed by one key environmental advocate. Most of the 31 Democrats who did support it in the vote today had also voted for the five ratemaking bills, unconcerned by the conflict. The three Republicans who supported the failed bill (which could come back for reconsideration) had opposed the ratemaking reforms as well.

The New, Blue Majority is still moving Virginia at warp speed toward acceptance of all the climate change shibboleths. If a bill can be sold as good for the environment, many Democrats fall in line automatically, no matter how expensive it will be or what damage it does to the SCC’s traditional oversight authority. House Democrats voting for several ratemaking reforms believe (correctly) that the SCC might bend the curve in consumer’s favor.

On the other hand, Dominion has most Republicans (and some Democrats) trained to vote against any bill if the utility signals disapproval because it might damage utility profits and stockholder returns. The Republicans are reliable votes against most green energy bills, usually over cost, but far too few in number to stop any of them on their own.

Republicans and Democrats will campaign for re-election claiming they stood up for consumers, failing to mention how they did it selectively, got played against each other and neutralized.

Part of the problem is the corrupting influence of money, with flagrant rent seeking from all the industries that want to dictate multi-billion dollar energy investment.  But the real problem is the abiding ignorance of most legislators about these issues, including some who have been following the issues through the years.

The “debates” on the various ratemaking reform bills previously discussed on Bacon’s Rebellion, the interrelated bills to provide carrots and sticks moving Virginia toward electric vehicles, and even the pending effort to protect lower-income Virginians from exploding green energy costs, have had one central thread: Few if any the legislators had any idea what they were talking about or voting on.

Sometimes the ignorance seems intentional. The experts on the state payroll, staff at the SCC, usually sit quietly through the meetings, getting no questions and never being asked for opinions.

Technically, some of the five House ratemaking reform bills were referred to a study commission that has served as a utility cheerleading panel. The Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, or CEUR (pronounced “sewer” without a hint of irony), has not even met since 2017.  They were “passed by indefinitely with a letter” in legislative parlance. So dead, but worthy of a wake.

As the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee was busy killing those bills Monday, a couple of the junior members new to the panel pleaded for a chance to spend more time with the issues in a forum away from the session.

“This stuff is extraordinarily complex and interrelated,” said Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County. “There have been lots of policy changes through the years that we need to consider.” He said other members would like a chance to discuss things “when there is not a gun to our heads and all these other bills going on in short hearings.”

But the two long-serving Dominion allies on the committee, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County, were unenthusiastic about the idea. “I don’t see where that would do any good at all,” Saslaw said  “I chaired that commission for 15 years and I still don’t know much about it,” Norment added.

Saslaw had to ask staff who is even on CEUR currently. He still is, but Norment is not. No Senate Republican is. The two House Republican members are both from Southwest Virginia and would never cross Dominion and threaten the future of its Virginia City coal plant or a promised pumped storage project in them thar hills. None of their constituents are Dominion customers anyway.

Another session is nearly over, usually win-win for the utilities, especially Dominion, and lose-lose for the average consumer. The legislators’ ignorance and their propensity to vote with reflexes rather than reflection have again been on display.